How to Turn Your Poetry into Music Lyrics
I often hear people say that “lyrics are just poems put to music,” but I disagree. Whenever I hear a poet speaking, their words seem much different than anything I could write to a song. It’s as if the absence of melody requires them to take bolder chances, to read and speak in a different way than if they were to sing. Let’s say you’re a poet interested in having your poem turned into a song. What are the steps?
Poets and Writers: How to Write Song Lyrics
I’m numbering these to make them easier to remember, but don’t feel like you need to follow them step by step! Here’s how I created these steps:
When I was a kid, I *really* wanted to be a songwriter, but had no idea how. I couldn’t play any instruments, and I didn’t feel confident about my music abilities at all. Since all I could do was write lyrics, I started there. These “poems” were not good (you can read more about them in my About Page here). Over time, I developed a system to take these words and create songs from them. I’ve also helped several poets and writers turn their poetry into lyrics with these steps!
If you’re going through this process, tweet me and let me know your progress!I'm turning my poetry into song lyrics! Click To Tweet
1). Use reference songs
Who are your favorite artists? Favorite songs? What do you want your song to sound like? You can actually take a song and fit your words into it – simply find a karaoke and speak your words over it. How do they fit? Play around with different songs and styles until you find something that works for you.
“Are you suggesting I just copy another song? Isn’t that illegal?!”
Yes, it’s highly illegal and yes, that’s what I’m suggesting. This is just practice! In no way will you be selling or even posting these songs anywhere. This is just to get your mind to think in terms of song rhythm and away from poetry. I have MANY clients who have me sing covers that are parodies. They take lyrics and re-write them for a friend or loved one. They’re not selling the song, so it’s not illegal. As long as you don’t post these or try to release them as your own, you’re fine! A producer will help make your song different anyway (see #7).
I do not recommend copying someone’s work and releasing it as your own! That’s not what you’re doing here. See #7 for how a producer can change your song!
2). Work with a songwriter or topliner
I’m a topliner, which means I create vocal melodies and lyrics for instrumentals. I’ve been doing this professionally for years, so I’m often able to see someone’s poems in a way they won’t.
A songwriter would honestly be better for this, because they can also create the instrumental track for you. Either way, just have someone who is music-minded look over it for you. They’ll look at it in a completely different way and they’ll give you ideas you wouldn’t have considered.
3). Speak/rap your poetry to a metronome
This might feel silly, but you’ve got to do it! It’s the only way to find out how your poem flows. If there are spots that feel clunky or are difficult to say, this means they’ll likely be difficult to sing as well. You can change up the timing and see if that works, but if you have any spots that won’t work, you’ll find out with this exercise.
Here is an online metronome. You can also speak your poetry to a karaoke track if hearing the music helps you!
4). Choose your poem’s refrain
Most songs have a chorus or refrain of some type, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when converting your poetry into lyrics. There are two options for doing this:
a). You choose the section of poetry words that you want to repeat
b). You don’t repeat words, but you repeat a melody
B is a lot harder in my opinion, but it is possible. One of my favorite examples of this style of writing is “Dear” by Maria Mena. The chorus lyrics are different every time. You only know it’s a chorus because the melody is the same. If you are not a songwriter, you’ll definitely need to work with someone in order to use this option!
The far easier method is A. Simply choose your favorite words (or the words you think sum up the meaning of your poem) and repeat those. It can be as simple as one line. You’ll just need to make sure it fits a song structure (see #6).
5). Study other songwriters who are famous poets and writers
Not every songwriter is a poet, so you’ll want to study artists who are very lyric-focused. Some examples would be Joni Mitchell, Jewel, Justin Nozuka and Maria Mena. Anyone whose lyrics you admire, study how they do it! Find their lyrics online and read them without thinking of any music. In this case, it’s easier to study someone you don’t know well, because the song won’t be in your head when you read it.
Study how they write. Pay attention to their rhyme structure, the words they use and how they end lines. This will help you see how they approach writing for music instead of poetry.
6). Study song structure
Typically, a song will follow this type of structure:
Verse 2 (or pre-chorus)
Verse 4 (or pre-chorus)
Of course, there are MANY different ways of arranging this. I don’t want to give you too many ideas and overcomplicate things, so just focus on this structure for now. See how your words might fit into this format.
7). Hire a Producer
I worked at a recording studio in Detroit and we would often have poets or lyricists come into the studio. They simply handed us a sheet of lyrics and we would work on it for a few hours until we got something the writer liked. This isn’t a cheap option, per se, but it’s the easiest on your part and you’ll get to leave with a song.
This kind of ties in with #2, but you can do either separately. Songwriters typically still use producers to flesh out and finish their songs, so you’re essentially skipping that step here.
Also, I want to mention #1, because this step is why you can feel free to copy an existing song. A producer can use the copy you’ve made and turn it into something completely different. You bring the rough idea and they can do things like change the key, add different instruments, even change the genre, so that by the end you’ll have a different song. This is the reason why I say you can copy other songs! I do not and never would advocate just copying a melody or lyrics and releasing them as your own. That’s illegal and you can get sued. However, this method will ensure that you get a start on a song and wind up with something completely different.
What if I want to create a song this way, but I don’t have a poem I’d like to use?
There are many exercises and challenges you can find online. Try searching for “Poetry prompts” or exercises or something, then work on something that speaks to you! It is also helpful if you decide on some type of rhythm or tempo NOW before you get started. Trust me. If you know what beat you’re writing to, you’ll avoid tricky situations later where you either have too many or not enough words. This isn’t a requirement, but is helpful down the road!
Ultimately, either term (poetry or lyrics) is subjective. What you consider poetry may be entirely different from what I consider it to be. And that’s okay. The beauty of word ‘creativity’ is that even if no one reads or hears it, it still exists. Every diary you’ve written, every Post It note, every song unrecorded has still existed and changed you. Even if no one hears your words, like a tree in the woods, it still makes a sound.
Do you have a favorite poet or lyricist? Let me know who I should check out!
This post was originally published on 4/1/2016.
Your article was so refreshingly encouraging and motivating, thank you. In fact, before I could even finish reading the steps you outlined in turning my poems into songs I was so excited to respond immediately with an “I am In!”
So, this is why I am very interested in not only getting your feedback but also to see where there may be a potential opportunity to actually see my words go on to a selling hit. Ok, well. A potential hit in the future… depending on what melody or music fits my contribution in words. With your help of course. I know you must get bombarded with poems or lyricists but I am just a low man on the totem pole that wants to see if my expressions perhaps may have a taste of uniqueness. I have written multiple (what I thought would be classified as lyrics) but maybe they are more like poetic expressions. I think likely because I am not familiar with writing or composing music although I think I have an ear for music. I think I am an Ok crooner when it comes to singing. LOL! Good sense of humor too…LOL! But I really would like to see if my discovery of your article through “Pinterest” has meant a turning point in my lyric writing pursuits to potential collaborations with music composers for an eventual goal of a real song.
I am not extensively familiar with all the details on the legal spectrum as to copyright laws and how you can help me with this in keeping all together.But I have confidence that you can also assist in that respect if we were to move forward with any of my writings. Your article and presentation are very warm and welcoming, thank you for that.
I would like to invite you to check out my website as I share with you below.
Further, I have many writings that could be categorized as poems that I would also like to be a part of opportunities.
I hope that I understood your article well. I was so excited that I just wanted to respond and send you this reply. I want to thank you so very much Mella.
Thanks so much for your feedback and I’m so glad you liked it! Feel free to email any of your poems to me at email@example.com (in terms of copyright, I won’t steal anything from you I promise, but the email with the time stamp should serve as proof that it was yours and you sent it to me). Or, if they’re already on your site, feel free to post a link and I’ll check it out there. Thanks so much and good luck!
Mama’s gonna buy you a cart and bull
If that cart and bull turn over,
Mama’s gonna buy you a dog named Rover
If that dog named Rover won’t bark,
I just remembered and got Nostalgia . Thnks for the article
Haha awesome, thanks so much!
Hey Mella. I would like to submit some of my poetry to you. I am so excited about this.
Hi! Feel free to submit it to my company at firstname.lastname@example.org and someone will be in touch!
If I submit poetry, how long does it take for you to put it to music? On the slim chance that the song is successful, to whom does the song belong?
Hi Debra! It depends on my schedule, how long the song is, etc but I do my best to meet any deadlines. The price varies depending on who keeps the song, since we wrote it together. If you want it as a work-for-hire then you would keep all rights, but it’s completely up to you!
How much if I want to buy all rights?
Would it be possible to send the lyrics to Mella@MellaMusic.com? That would allow me to figure out the overall steps and I can give you a full quote 🙂 Thanks so much!
I have tons of poetry, even some published work. I happened across this site and I would love to get more involved in this. I love music and lyrics, how they dance together to form many feelings.
These are some really great suggestions for how to take a poem/poetry and turn it into a song. I have never actually thought about what it takes, even though we do it all the time. It was nice of you to put it into an actionable post. Will definitely share your suggestions to our Facebook group page. Others in our community will appreciate this. Thanks.
what is your facebook group page?
I’m a pianist and a poet. I’ve written several poems over the years and have put some to music. How do I go about finding a song writer, or top liner, or a publisher? Here’s the first verse of one I’ve recently written:
Are you troubled and stressed?
Are you worried and distressed?
Draw near to God and He will bless.
Come and lay upon His chest.
I think social media is probably the best bet, especially today when everyone posts their music everywhere! You could try places like SoundCloud or Reverbnation, those are social media sites geared toward music creators and you can browse for what you’re looking for!
I’m a poet with over 400 poems to my credit. I write rhyming lyrical form. I’ve wrote for Diamond Garden Music and Lava Records. Still waiting though.
Still I want personal work.
Hi, I’m not sure what ‘personal work’ means, did you want someone to work with specific songs you have? You can find songwriters to work with you in the suggestions listed above or try a place like AirGigs to help put your lyrics to music. Hope that helps!
I thought, I would share a poem of mine.
Someday, we’ll leave this world all alone,
We’ll leave our loved ones, treasures, all that we own.
As we entered this world, we shall leave,
There will be many left behind, whom will grieve.
The clock is ticking, grains of sand falling,
Are we following our heart’s desire, “our calling”?
I ask of you, are you happy, loved, love in return?
Are you appreciated, respected, and was it earned?
Are you thankful for everything, all of your experiences, from the start?
Do you give, and love with all of your heart?
Thoughts to ponder as the clock ticks away,
There’s no way to stop it, no way to stay.
I cannot fathom, living that way,
How depressing to live without love from day to day.
Life would lose it’s magic, our hearts would eventually decay.
There would be no reason to continue,
I wouldn’t want to stay!
Hope you have been well.
As a work-in-progress writer, I’m super glad to have stumbled upon this post! Thank you so very much for sharing such wise guidance in simple words that doesn’t overwhelm the little hearts who are already fearful and underconfident!
I very much and deeply appreciate your efforts to not only share the process but also, bits about your journey. It’s a tough journey for all, but I surely resonate with you that everyone has to define themselves and the place they want to be in this vast realm of music.
This post and you journey has given me a glimmer of hope and has surely left me very much wondering if there was a way I could contact you or get any feedback on my work (poem collections, as some may call them; but I truly don’t know if they fit that category completely). I’m very much of a starter in this big, wide world who has been looking for honest feedback and isn’t much interested with the monetization aspect of stuff.
Would it be possible for you take some time out of your schedule to check out some of my “words” and share some of your thoughts? I would very much appreciate any feedback. If you are interested, please do let me know if there’s anyway I could reach out to you further.
Thanks and stay safe,
Hi Heather! I’m always willing to give feedback, but I’m better with melodies than lyrics so I would take my opinion with a grain of salt! But please feel free to send it to email@example.com and I’ll be happy to take a look!
Hi Mella. I have a couple lyrics that I’d like someone to look at. Can I submit these privately to you? Thank you.
Hi absolutely! Please send to Mella@MellaMusic.com – thanks so much!