For songwriters, it’s a perennial question: “Which should I write first, music or lyrics?”
Is it best to write lyrics first, write music first, or both together?
You can write your song’s lyric at any point in the process. You can:
- Write lyrics first, with no musical accompaniment at all
- Write lyrics while composing, a little at a time
- Write lyrics last, after all the music is composed
All three of these strategies have led songwriters to exciting, memorable work. Whichever one works for the song you’re working on is the correct strategy for that situation.
To learn the most, experiment with all of these songwriting strategies. Each approach has its own advantages and challenges, and each exercises different songwriting “muscles.” As the composer John Cage said, you really can “Start anywhere.” Anywhere at all.
Let’s look at each of these three strategies a little closer.
Strategy 1: Write the Lyric First
For a lyricist, writing the lyric first is a great way to focus on exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. This approach also allows you to focus on the music hidden in language itself.
Challenges of writing the lyric first include:
- Finding an emotion and a lyric idea without any mood-setting music to help
- Choosing words that sing well, with lines of appropriate length
- Composing melodies that express the feeling and the meaning of the lyric
For more help composing a melody to a finished lyric, check out the post How to Write a Melody For any Lyric.
Strategy 2: Write a Lyric to Finished Music
Writing lyrics for finished music doesn’t always mean writing to a recorded track. It could just mean you’ve got chords and a vocal melody drafted for every section of the song.
The advantage of writing the music first is that the song’s structure is mapped, and the music creates an inspiring emotional drive. By the time you sit down to write the lyric, you already know how many sections you need to fill, and have a musical mood to guide you.
Challenges of writing the lyric last include:
- Inventing detailed descriptions and stories that match the music’s vibe
- Choosing words that are meaningful and fit the vocal melody
- Fitting your entire idea inside the musical structure
For some ideas on writing a lyric to existing music, see: How to Write a Lyric for an Instrumental Track.
Strategy 3: Write the Lyric While Composing
This strategy is a compromise between lyrics and music, where each inspires the other, and each takes shape a little at a time. One very common form of this strategy is to strum a chord progression (or a riff) while composing the vocal melody and the lyric at the same time, so that melody and lyric are born together.
The advantage here is that it allows you to tailor the lyric in little ways to fit the melody, and tailor the melody to fit the lyric.
Challenges of composing and writing at the same time include:
- Overwhelm, if writing alone – it’s a lot for one person to do all at once!
- Collaboration, if writing together – co-writing between a composer and a lyricist can be tricky
When do you write your lyric?
Creative Commons photo by waferboard