It’s the age old question of songwriting: which comes first the music or the lyrics? On the surface this is purely a matter of preference. Clearly wonderful songs have been written from both angles. But if you dig a little deeper you discover the subtle nuances of each approach and how they can affect the song’s final form.
If you’re of the mindset that to write a good song you must first start with lyrics, chances are you’re a word guy or gal. You like words, ideas, themes, etc. And the greatest expression of all three of those things is in poetry. It may seem old fashion to some, but poetry has been one of the all time greatest expressions of art in world history.
It would be no surprise then that to write a song is simply to set your poetry to music. This mindset is built on the foundational assumption that music only serves the words. There is a definitive order of priority and rank. Both are important and vital to a great song, but the music must exist to put the lyrics on display.
In most cases, the lyrics first songwriting approach gives you a few things. It gives you a song that has clear direction lyrically, with a concrete theme or idea. It also leaves you with melodies that move around a lot and can vary from line to line.
Now this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s simply a result of a lyric first approach. You have great lyrics that need to fit, so you make the melody and song progression fit the words. The result is generally a lack of catchy hooks, but instead the song is memorable because it has such quotable lyrics.
If you’re of the mindset that a great song is clearly a piece of music with potential and occasional words that are sung, chances are you are a music and rhythm nut. You love riffs, melodies, and inverted chords. In fact you love music so much that lyrics aren’t even a necessity to create a great song.
Much like the lyric first mindset, the music first mindset is built on a foundational assumption that lyrics exist only or primarily to serve the music and the vocal melody. The lyrics are there to put the music on display.
When you go the music first route, you tend to write songs with definitive structures and melodies that are both catchy and balanced. You give the listener a clear and memorable hook that sticks with them for a long time to come. Lyrics, however, might be forgettable.
Now of course the perfect song would have both catchy and memorable music and lyrics, but in a lot of cases the music first approach gives a little less weight to whether or not the lyrics resonate with the listener. As long as they go away humming your tune, you’ve succeeded.
By way of preface, just because you lean one way or the other doesn’t mean you won’t ever write songs from the opposite approach. Actually changing it up can be a refreshing exercise
In fact, one of my favorite songwriters of all time, Chris Cornell (Soundgarden and Audioslave), has historically been a music first songwriter. Riffs, melodies, and chord progressions were the genesis of many of his songs. Lyrics came last.
But on his first solo album after Soundgarden disbanded in the late 90s, he wrote a collection of poetry and then went in the studio to fit them into some new music. The result was definitely different than his previous outings, but is still one of my favorite albums to date.
But in general, we all tend to lean in one direction over the other. Think about the last three songs you wrote. Were they originated with music or lyrics? Why? Were you happy with how they turned out?
How about this new project you’re working on? How will you write these new songs?