Toplining 101: Melody & Lyrics in Songwriting | Clare Dove | Skillshare

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Toplining 101: Melody & Lyrics in Songwriting

teacher avatar Clare Dove, Songwriter & Vocalist

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

11 Lessons (29m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Our Class Project

    • 3. What is a Topline?

    • 4. Getting Started Part I

    • 5. Getting Started Part II: Is This Right?

    • 6. Melody Building Blocks

    • 7. Melody Structure

    • 8. Lyrics & Concept

    • 9. Creative Blocks

    • 10. What Next?

    • 11. Thank You!

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About This Class

Welcome to Toplining 101! In this class we’ll be exploring melody and lyric in songwriting.

Throughout these lessons you’ll learn about what ‘toplining’ actually is, and how to create memorable, meaningful lyrics and melodies in your songs that will connect to both you and your listener! 

This class is for anyone and everyone wanting to explore these skills. Whether you are already a producer, an artist or an instrumentalist, or if making music is completely new to you, I’ll be providing you with practical, usable steps and creative inspiration that will become your go to building blocks in developing your own writing style. 

Expressing ourselves and connecting with others through music is something that is so powerful and beneficial for both us as the creators and our listeners, but it can be hard to know how to start, especially if we’re just waiting for inspiration to hit us! The skills you’ll learn in this class will teach you how to approach your songs, and how to consistently find your way to a great melody and lyric combination. These are without a doubt the most important elements of a song, and once you have the tools to create them, you can take your song ideas forward in an infinite number of ways!

The only tools needed for this class are somewhere to write (a journal/notebook, computer or even your phone, whatever you prefer) and a device to record your ideas (this can be a microphone and your computer with preferred DAW, or simply a phone with a voice notes app or dictaphone).

For producers taking this class you will using you own beats to write to, and if you play an instrument you will be encouraged to use this – however these are not requirements, so do not worry if neither apply to you!

Having worked in the music industry as a songwriter for nearly ten years now, with artists, producers and fellow writers at every stage of their musical journeys, I’ve learned so much about songwriting and creative process in general that I can't wait to share with you! I’m so excited to explore these writing tools with you and hear that work you create.


Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Clare Dove

Songwriter & Vocalist


Hi, I'm Clare and I'm a songwriter from London. I've been working in the music industry for over a decade - both as a songwriter and as a vocalist, and I'm super passionate about sharing my experiences (and boy, have I had a lot of them!) with others.

I work daily with incredible award winning producers and upcoming artists, both here in the UK and across the globe, and have encountered pretty much every scenario (good and bad) that you might come across when creating a song! I'm excited to share with you my knowledge on everything songwriting - from practical advice on crafting melody and lyrics, to tips on collaboration, creativity and resilience. Whether you are stepping in to songwriting ... See full profile

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1. Introduction: Hi, I'm Clare Dove and I'm a songwriter and a vocalist. I've been working in the music industry since I was in my teens, but really transitioned into songwriting and toplining for other artists almost 10 years ago now. I've been lucky enough to work with incredible artists and producers all over the world, from Grammy winners to unsigned acts right right the beginning of their careers. When I started out on my songwriting journey though, it was all brand new to me and I was very much having to figure it out as I went along. There is so much that I wish I had known when I was starting out, which is why I decided to create this course for you guys. Throughout this process, we're going to be learning about what toplining actually is, how to get started with our songs, and most importantly, how to create melodies and lyrics that stand out, that are memorable, and actually make us and our audience feel something. Now, I know I've mentioned the music industry a couple of times already but you definitely don't have to have professional aspirations to take this course. You just have to want to write your first song. You don't need to be tech-savvy, have understanding of music theory, or even play a musical instrument, although obviously if you have those skills, that's amazing. You guys just have to want to write your first song. No matter your experience level starting out, by the end of this course, you are going to have your very own song. So without further ado, let's go songwriting. 2. Our Class Project: Throughout this class, I'm going to be taking you through the steps to create your very own song topline. Don't worry, in the next lesson, I'm going to explain exactly what that word means. I've created these lessons so that anyone can follow along, no matter your musical background or ability. My hope is that you'll be able to come back to these techniques time and time again as you continue your songwriting journey and develop your own style and creative process. Once you've finished the class and completed your song idea, please share it in the class project section. I'll be there to give you feedback and direction for where to take this idea next. You can also use this as a space to collaborate and connect with each other. Remember, this is not a class on creating the perfect song recording or giving the perfect performance. Please don't worry if you're not super confident in recording your own ideas. We are here to focus on crafting melody and lyrics. You can, of course, even ask somebody else to sing your ideas, there are plenty of songwriters that never perform their own work themselves. In the class, I'll show you how to create or source a simple instrumental to build your melody and lyrics over if you're not somebody who already plays an instrument or produces their own beats. If you do already play or produce though, I want to encourage you to use your existing skills in these areas and your own work as your starting point for these lessons. When you share your work at the end, it's totally up to you if you want to share a full song with an instrumental and chords, or if you just want to share the topline melody and lyrics. It's totally up to you but remember that's the part we're really focused on in this class, the melody and the lyrics. You can share your song at the end as an audio file, so an MP3 or just a voice note straight from your phone or you can upload a video performance. Please feel free to share works in progress as you go along too and seek help from me and the group. Collaboration is one of the most powerful tools at a songwriters disposal. I hope you enjoy these classes and I can't wait to hear your song ideas. 3. What is a Topline?: Okay, so what actually is a top line? The top line is the lead melody and lyric. So essentially, it's the part that the singer or the artist is performing on top of the instrumentation. Here's a little example of a song clip. I've kept loving you post way down but have been weighed down, with warning constantly. Now let's just listen to the top line on its own. I've kept loving you post way down, but have been weighed down with one warning constantly. This time top-line exists due to the way that a lot of modern music is created these days, with producers and beat makers really focusing on creating the instrumental, leaving space for songwriters to focus on the melody and the lyric. It's really important though, that we don't think of these as two separate static elements. The production and the top-line really need to complement and serve each other. Right now we are focusing on crafting melodies and lyrics. These are the parts of the song that we sing out in the shower and that gets stuck in our heads for days. Finding that perfect combination of melody and lyric that field just right in such a special feeling and I'm going to help you guys get there. 4. Getting Started Part I: Let's get started. Now, like any creative process, there are an infinite number of ways to write a song and there's no real right way. What I'm going to do is take you through a step-by-step process. That means right now, if you're starting completely from scratch, you can follow the order and process of this course and get to your first topline idea. Going forward when you've completed the class, you can mix this process up as much as you want. But my hope is that I'll be out to give you a really strong foundation for your songwriting that you can always rely on and come back to as often as you want. Today, we're going to start by finding an instrumental or just a chord sequence that's going to help us form our initial ideas. I know you'll all be approaching this class from different perspectives. I'm going to go through the examples of how you can do this step depending on what's right for you right now. If you are a producer or a beat maker and you're here honing in on your songwriting skills, I want you to pull up any instrumental that you've made that makes you feel something, that you just know wants to become a finished song. That's what I want you to write to. If you're someone who plays an instrument like a guitar or piano, I want you to come up with a simple chord progression. Now, it doesn't even have to be original for this exercise. It can be a progression that you already know. It just has to make you feel something. Once you've got this chord sequence, record it somewhere that you can keep playing it back once we focus on writing our topline. If you have facilities to record this like Logic or Garageband, that's great. But if not, you can just use the voice note app that you'll be able to find on most mobile phones. If you don't play or produce and you're approaching this process completely fresh, I'm going to help you find an instrumental to work from. There are a few places we can go. The first one is my favorite platform and an industry standard, Here you can find chord progressions and song starters that will really get you inspired. All you need to do is click "Sounds" and then search for anything that you think might inspire you based on your tastes. I've searched gospel keys because I was in that kind of mood. But you can really search for anything. When you've done that, you want to select "Loops", which means the sound has been created for you to play round and around in a loop, and then just test them out until you find something that you really love. When you've found one, you just download it and it's yours to use as you wish. The great thing is that everything here is royalty-free. Meaning once you've downloaded the sound, you own it. Now, you do need to sign up to a Splice account to access all of this, which is about 6 pounds or $8 a month. If you ask me though, it really is worth it if you're getting into song writing. There are other sample sites that you can find online other than Splice. But if that process just feels a little bit too technical for you, then we can head to YouTube. By searching here for different genre or artists inspired instrumentals, you'll find a whole world of music waiting for you to topline. Try searches like pop instrumental, or you can get a little bit more specific like I've done and try something like Billie Eilish style instrumental to get you going. When you do find one that you love and that really makes you feel something, you can use the links found in the video description to purchase this so you can use it as you wish. If you're still stuck on any of this, you can of course, just create an acapella idea, which means just singing with no instrumental. For this class though, I really would recommend using one as it's going to be the most beneficial way for you to go through this process. 5. Getting Started Part II: Is This Right?: In our last class, I asked you to select an instrumental or a chord sequence. You'll have noticed that I kept saying that I needed that instrumental or sequence to make you feel something. I cannot stress enough how important this part is. Music is all about feeling and when somebody else hears our song for the first time, we want them to feel something. At this beginning stage, it's so important that it does it for us as writers. Listen back to the code sequence or the instrumental you've chosen. When you listen, what happens? Does your body react by feeling the urge to dance or to get a lump in your throat because you want to cry? Maybe it makes you think of somebody or evokes a forgotten memory. Finding a way to connect to the music is the first essential step in your writing process. If the instrumental doesn't make you feel anything, don't worry, but go back and search for something until you find one that does. This can take a little bit of patience that you just know when it's right. Trying to write with something that doesn't evoke any emotion in us as writers is an immediate creative roadblock, and it's going to be so hard for us to find inspiration. If you need to, go back, keep searching or keep creating code sequences, and then we can move on to our next class, melody. 6. Melody Building Blocks: Okay. At this point we have an instrumental or a chord sequence to work with that's hopefully getting our imaginations and our emotions moving, so we're off to a really good start. Our top-line comprises of two elements, the melody and the lyrics. Now, there is no rule for the order in which to write. Sometimes a lyric will come to you first or you might wake up in the morning with a melody in your head. Some days they just tumble out together. For today though, we're going to start with our melody. To start with, I want you to put your instrumental on a repeated loop. You can do this using a music software program if you already know how, or if not, just keep pressing play, get a separate device ready that you can record voice notes on. Press play on your track, and just start singing. Don't worry about words. Just make sounds or hum for now. There are no bad melodies and no bad ideas at this point. Nothing is wrong. As you go don't try and analyze yourself as you're singing and whatever you do, don't stop even if you feel like you did something you really didn't like. That's going to interrupt our creative flow that we're trying to access right now. Also, don't judge your singing voice. That's not what we're here for. Unconfident voices can still find beautiful melodies. So don't dismiss your ideas just because you might not like the way that you sound. You can always connect with a singer down the line to help portray your ideas, which is what a lot of professional songwriters do. Repeat this process of melody idea dumping five times. Don't listen back to anything until you've recorded all the way through the instrumental, at least these many times. Once you've done that, you can start to play them back. As you're listening, you'll probably start to find that there are certain melodies that you just kept going back to or certain notes that you were drawn to. At this point, try just taking 5-10 minutes of silence. What melodies are sticking in your head now when the music has stopped playing? If there are things that are sticking out to you like this, then you're in a really good place. If you feel like you're not quite there yet, don't worry, just keep repeating the steps of spewing these melody ideas completely unfiltered and then listening back. Just like when an artist paints, sometimes the process of your song revealing itself to you can be a slow one. Stick with this part though, because slowly but surely your melodies are going to start to reveal themselves to you. When they're right, I promise you're just going to know and that part is so exciting. 7. Melody Structure: Now that we're starting to find some really strong melodies that are jumping out and sticking, we're actually going to start structuring our melody before we do anything else. Let's talk a little bit about song structure. I'm going to teach you the classic pop song structure. Once you know this, it gives you a great foundation to come back to as often as you like, and, of course, like anything creative, once you know the rules, you're free to break them. But I really think it helps just to know this. Traditionally, first up in our song is our verse. This melody is setting the tone of the song and is where we're going to begin to tell our story. We want every melody throughout the song to be catchy and memorable, but we can afford to have a little less repetition in our verse than, say, our chorus, which is coming up later. We should give ourselves somewhere to go, both melodically and energy-wise, so that the song can flow. So I'd suggest not going full throttle with big high notes and huge energy in our first verse. Next up will be a pre-chorus. This section is going to link our verse into the chorus, so the melody should feel like we're building up to something. A great pre-chorus should feel like you've perfectly teed up the chorus so it lands with maximum impact. Now let's talk about our chorus melody. Our chorus is the section in the song that repeats the most throughout and it's where we want to sum up the song's intention and story, and ideally, it's the part that we're going to hear people sing. 8. Lyrics & Concept: When it comes to lyrics, I'm of the school of thought that nothing hits quite like the truth. I try to always draw from my own experiences in some way and write from a place of authenticity. I feel like when we write something that we feel really connected to, it allows the audience to connect to it too. That is what it's all about. Whether it's a deeply emotional song or something I just want people to dance to, I still want to write something real. Generally, it's good not to get too specific with our own experiences as we still want to let people in. When we think of those songs that goes through grief or capture exactly how deeply we love someone, and we wonder, how did that artist manage to so perfectly capture my life? Well, it's probably because they were writing from a place of truth, but they still let you in. To me, that is great lyric writing. There are definitely many exceptions to this rule though, and it's something you can explore as you find your own writing style and point of view. But for now that would definitely be my tip for today's exercise, write something real from your own experiences, but let us in. When it comes to actual song concepts, although we want to express a feeling that people can relate to, a really great song says it in a way that we've never heard before. Take Adele, and her song Set Fire To The Rain, for example. Now, that song is about the pain of a relationship being over and heartache, which is a concept covered a million times in songwriting. But the way she tells it and that whole new way, giving us that beautiful image, is part of the reason why so many of us felt so deeply connected to it and why it's likely to be remembered for decades. Let's start connecting our lyric with our melodies. Hopefully you have some vague idea of what this song is about. Now you've spent enough time with the melody. Even if you don't have a concept in mind, you probably know the feeling of it and the emotion that's evoked in you that you want to share with people when they hear it. Some of you might have immediately had a concept spring to mind as soon as you heard those initial quotes. That's great, and if that's the case, you should definitely follow it. If that hasn't happened for you, though, fear not, because what you're experiencing is actually how it goes most of the time. But together we're going to pick through it and enjoy the excitement of letting the song slowly reveal to you what it wants to say. If you're like me, as you've been singing your melodies, certain vowel sounds will have kept coming up over specific sections. Use these to guide you. Pick any section of the song to work on first. Go with whatever feels like it's revealing itself the most to you: verse, pre-chorus, or chorus. The vowel sounds that you keep making, what words do they sound like? Write them. Make those sounds into your first lyric line. Don't judge it. Give yourself permission to write a bad lyric. What we often do is stop ourselves before we even get going because we feel like the first thing we've written is bad. Maybe it's bad, but allow that first bad line to help you get to the second one, and then the second to the third, and so on. As you start to get into the swing of these lyrics, you'll start to hone in on your concept. Often I can feel myself circling it for ages, but I just keep writing and suddenly I land on it. But you can't get there without doing the bad and the messy stuff first. As you get closer to your concept and clearer on what it is you want to say in the song, then you can go back and fix the things you did earlier that don't feel right. Our chorus is where we really want to hit the audience with our concept. Often, but not always, we'll find our song title here. Again, we want to aim to be clear and original. Don't be afraid to use lyric repetition in your chorus. In fact, I suggest you try make a priority to aim for. Lyric repetition makes it easier to sing along to and for audiences to remember, and it really helps to solidify your concept. As you're going along, you're also likely to find sections where what you want to say and the phrasing of your melody just don't quite line up. Don't be rigid here. Your melody and your lyric are now becoming one thing, so you're going to need to tweak things to get that perfect melody lyric combination. As you work, keep singing out loud. Are the words easy to get out? If they're not, if they're making you stumble, keep editing. Keep chipping away until you find a way to say what you want to say while still being able to sing it out loud in your car. Some days your lyrics will pour out of you like it's not even in your control, and some days you just stare at the same few words for hours, baffled about how you're going to get any further with them. But if you keep coming back to these foundations of lyric writing, I promise you'll get there every time, even if sometimes it takes a little longer. To sum up, our lyric foundations are: Write from a place of authenticity. Allow your audience in by not making your ideas too specific or unrelatable. Sum up your concepts in a way that feels new and original. Make your lyrics easy to sing and role off the tongue. Allow yourself to write bad lyrics. Finally, keep editing. 9. Creative Blocks: We've all had creative blocks when it comes to writing a song. Whether the melody, or the lyric, or both just don't seem right, as writers, this is something we're all going to experience at some point, to some degree. I'm going to be sharing an in-depth course on unlocking creativity for songwriters in the future. But for now, for anyone who might be struggling at this point in the course, I'm just going to share a couple of quick tricks. First up, the simplest and most effective, go for a walk and get some fresh air. The change of scene, the shift in physical energy, the fresh air, and getting some natural light that we're often so lacking in when we're writing a song, would do wonders to help you come unstuck. Don't just stop, and expect inspiration to reach out to you on its own. It's absolutely okay to stop for a day, especially when you've been banging your head against the wall for hours. But you have to show up again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, for as long as it takes. Even if it's just for 10, 15 minutes a day. Songwriting is like a muscle, and if we stop, it just loses strength. So keep writing. Bad writing is so much more helpful to our development as writers, than not writing at all. Come back with fresh ears. Don't be afraid to leave a song for a day or two, to write another song and then return to it. This new song, might help inform this one. Reach out to a co-writer. I believe that collaboration is so important in songwriting, and in life. I can't tell you how valuable it's been to my development as a writer. Sometimes your co-writer can just make the smallest suggestion, that will completely unravel everything you've been stuck with. I'm a big believer in putting yourself and your art out there. If you don't have people in your circle that you feel you can reach out to you for collaboration, get involved in one of the thousands of online or in-person songwriter circles. You'll find these on social media sites with a quick Google search, or by reaching out in the class project section here. Don't forget, I'm going to be here too to offer you feedback. Don't be afraid to share your unfinished work, and seek some further inspiration. 10. What Next?: Congratulations. By now, you should have your first topline. Remember, you can keep revisiting these classes if you feel like a section needs more work as often as you like, and you can share your progress in the Class Projects section. Now that you know the basics of topline writing and the foundations, you can work approaching the process in as many different ways as you like and switching it up. My hope is that these foundations will help you to find your own writing style and give you a basis to come back to as often as you need or want to. Now that you have your song idea, it's really up to you were to take this next. Perhaps you really want to finish this one up and release it into the world. Maybe you want to start performing it, or maybe this is just the springboard into exploring more songwriting for you. Regardless of your next goal, I have one major piece of advice, collaborate. Use everything at your disposal, your own networks, the Internet, this platform to reach out to others and continue your songwriting journey. I mentioned earlier in the course that many songwriters build relationships with singers who can perform and record their idea in the way that they'd imagined. So you might want to try reaching out to singers who might like to get involved in your songwriting process. Some of you may feel ready to record your song professionally but are not sure how to do this yourself. In which case, I would recommend reaching out to producers in your local area who can help you turn your song idea into a fully finished record. Find other songwriters to collaborate with, instrumentalists to jam with, and audiences to play to. Put yourself out there. Now that you know how, don't stop writing. 11. Thank You!: Guys, I really hope you enjoyed this introduction to topline and songwriting, and that you now feel able to continue in your own writing journeys. I've been songwriting and working in this industry for a long time now and honestly, it's just a privilege to be able to share some of that information with you. I can't wait to check out your ideas in the class section, and I hope you join me again for more courses on creativity and songwriting in the future. For now, though, thank you so much for joining me. Bye.