“how do you set poetry to music?”

A friend recently asked me, “how do you set poetry to music?” and I think there are a couple approaches but the easiest (but also the answer no one wants to hear) is that you just do it.

You sit down with your instrument (or without) and start singing the poetry. Oftentimes the hardest part is getting over your inner critique. Refrain from deciding if the melody is good or bad… you can do that later. You’ll want to try as many melodies as possible. In this process, you’ll likely find at least a fragment of something that you find interesting. Record it. (I use voice memos).

Once you find the fragment or chunk of melody that you like, use that to build the rest of the melody. It’s a process. Maybe you’ll really like what you write today, and hate it tomorrow. Or maybe you’ll hate what you write today and like it tomorrow. Give yourself time.

If this still feels like a shot in the dark, here are a couple of ideas to get you warmed up:

  • Take the melody of a song that is already written and try setting the poetry to that. You obviously can’t take credit for writing the music but it will give you an idea of what works and what does not.
  • Pick a song that you like and listen to it deeply. This is incredibly useful.
    • What does that artist do with their melody?
    • Is it one breath per line of poetry? Or is it broken?
    • How does the melody reflect the intensity of the lyrics? Does the line go up or down?

The magical thing about popular music is that you need no formal training to be write, compose, arrange, or record it. You simply have to pay attention and write.