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When writing a song, which do you compose first - the music or the lyrics? And why?


Sherman Dorn
An historian in Nashville, writes:
I claim the Woodie Guthrie method -- get the chorus down first, then worry about the verses, because the chorus is the lynchpin. I suppose that doesn't answer the question, so let me go through it a step at a time. First, write chorus lyrics while half-humming them. Then try to sing them. Bang head into wall. Try to hum a similar tune. Refit words. Try to sing them. Bang head into wall. Rewrite lyrics. Redo music. Try to sing them. Yell, "Eureka, a chorus!" (at which point twelve men in strange clothing will come dancing from stage left chanting about doom, the gods, and Euripides, but you ignore them). Go to hardware store to get some drywall and putty.

Hum something you think would be good for the verses. Write 10-12 verses. Realize that only people who like to listen to 47 verses will speak to you after this, and whittle it down to 3. Try to sing them. Bang head into wall. Write 12 more verses. Try to sing them. Bang head into wall and redo music. Realize none of the verses you wrote now scan. Bang head into wall. Rewrite verses and add a few more. Try to sing them. Whittle them down to 3-5 verses. Try out chords. Bang head into wall. Spend 3 hours getting chord progression correct. Try to notate. Realize that you've just written something with two different time signatures, one of them 7/8 that only the Dave Brubeck Quartet could do competently. Bang head into wall. Get stock in Home Depot and on the way home think, "I wonder if I could write a song about that ..."

Dear Sherman - Thanks for your excellent advice on writing lyrics. For years now I have been kicking the cat when things aren't going that great. As you can well imagine, the cat is starting to get just a little wary. Effective immediately, I plan to start banging my head against the wall, per your suggestion. I am sure that there will be a noticeable improvement in the quality of my work, not to mention the shape of my head. :-) -David E. Schindler


John Lindblad
An urbano-rural songcrafter wannabe from a large Ont. Metro Ctr., writes:
Hoboy. What a tangle at the bend in th' river. Since I fancy myself a decent guitar soloist and rhythm player, those chord progressions keep on rolling out; sometimes, though, you come up with something that defies words. In that case, I try to keep the lyrical image simple--the music's bound to be stron- ger. If the lyrics come first, things can get really complex later, when you try to match the nuts to the bolts, if you know what I mean.

A really nice set of lyrics are easy enough to come up with, if you are an obsevant, thoughtful person. Streets, the sun, hamburgers, gasoline: there's a song 'write' there! I bet that the music there could be pretty simplistic in a simplis- tically pretty way, too. It's only when a very poetic set of words comes up that music becomes a problem. If the tune is not about anything readily identifiable, how can you be happy with whatever music you put to it? There could be seventeen other progressions that would fit nicely. The bottom line: you're never going to be in love with it, but you'll come to terms with it. However, a bit of advice from someone who gets frustrated VERY easily with the wordgames: make sure those 'dry' lyrics--lacking music yet--can be at least SPOKEN to a beat; it will help to trim the fat out of them so that you can breathe! Also, try jotting down those nagging images that come to mind when you are futzing around the instrument. And try to go out on a limb now and then: I mean, juxtapose weirdly!


Jon Court
A songwriter from Adelaide, Australia, writes:
It all depends...sometimes the words come first and then I add the music and sometimes I'll just be playing guitar and pick up a melody and add words. Most of the time I write the words for the first verse, add music and then write the rest of the lyrics to fit the music.
Scott Snyder
An Urban Tapestry groupie (Ed.Note: Awww...shucks, Scott. :-> ), writes:
Usually I start with a lyric idea and a concept for the "feel" of the song, then I start to work out the music to fit that concept. I often find I change directions while working out the tune, but that's all part of the process for me. So, I guess you could say I work on both at the same time - the lyrics adjusting to fit a new melodic or rhythmic idea I have discovered, or the tune adjusting to fit the lyrics, or shifting to achieve just the right "color". But, it is true that I usually START with at least a lyric idea - even if it's just a topic.
D. B.
A secret-life songwriter from North Carolina, writes:
For the song I'm most proud of, the music and lyrics came at the same time. Although the chords and melody to that song are pretty simple. Mostly, I use "dummy" lyrics as I fumble for a melody and chord structure. The lyrics then go through a long and arduous process of refinement. I've tried it the other way, with the lyrics first, but it never works very well. Its a good exercise for me though, as sometimes I'll take bits and pieces of the words to use in other songs.
Lee Elliott
"Am I the only pop/power pop writer in Austin?", writes:
Once upon a time it was lyrics first, then the music. Somehow it's all backwards now. I'll noodle around until I have something that feels like a strong chorus and maybe write enough of a lyric to summarize what I think the song is going to be about. But I won't finish a lyric until I have a solid melody for the verses and bridge. All along, I'll be thinking about what the song is about. Then I'll sometimes use the "cluster" technique to come up with more words to use. For some reason I get better prosody this way.
James R. Whitson
An amateur songwriter currently working on my first attempt at a musical, writes:
When I start writing a song, I'm thinking about the lyrics, BUT if I don't get at least a basic melody line with the lyric then it's much harder for me to go back later and write the music. So I try to get both the lyrics and some music concurrently because if I don't it's very likely the words will get tossed in my 'unfinished file' and probably never touched again!
Lynn Gold
A songwriter from California, writes:
I write them simultaneously. I'll hear fully arranged and even orchestrated chunks of a song in my head. Sometimes I'll hear one chunk of a song and it'll be months before I hear another chunk of the same song. I sometimes wind up tweaking the lyrics after I've written an initial version because I tend to hear a verse (or two) and a chorus, but I've never written a whole tune without lyrics or a full set of lyrics without a tune.
David Wier
A Dallas songwriter, writes:
I never can tell. Sometimes if I hear a phrase, it will kick off a few lines of lyrics which then trigger inspiration for music. If I am playing guitar or keyboards, I sometimes play a chord progression which then triggers a melody, but many times I get lyrics & melody in my head both at the same time.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Ed. Note: "An admirer of Jodi Krangle's website and tremendous talent" she says. Yup. Ya gotta love 'er. {grin}, writes:
Both at the same time, though with humour songs I tend to do lyrics first. If I'm writing about chocolate, I always do the lyrics first because after I've finished eating the chocolate, I'm usually too full to make the effort to open the guitar case. (Ed. Note: I shoulda seen this one coming... {chuckle} --Jodi)
Tom Ebert
A songwriter from Morgan Hill, Ca., writes:
I'm usually inspired by my own music. Since I am not a very good guitarist my songwriting creations are based on simple chordings. Typically no more then 5 chords per song. Also the idea for the song is already in my head. I tend to write quickly, although over the years I've slowed quite a bit. When I first started writing in the 70's my songs were completed in sometimes less then 5 minutes! Now I sometimes take weeks to write one song. Although the idea for the song is in my head I need the music to inspire me....essentially framing the mood for the lyrics to be created.
Jason Jermaine Smith
A student/songwriter from Atlanta, writes:
I compose the lyrics first all the time because right now I don't know how to write music yet. But when I do learn how to write music I think that I'll still write the lyrics first because, to me, they really let the listener know more of what the composer/writer was thinking at the moment he wrote that particular piece.
Scott MurrillA songwriter/guitarist/singer from Mobile, AL (no, not country music!), writes:,
Usually the lyrics. I have a vast collection of unfinished music, both on tape and in my head, and I'm pretty good at coming up with music on the spot. Writing lyrics takes more effort for me, so I tend to write complete or nearly complete lyrics, then find/write music that fits--in the sense that the lyrics sound good when sung with the music, but more importantly that the mood of the music fit the mood of the lyrics, and vice versa...
Greg Collins
A Beatle wannabe from Brampton, Ontario, writes:
I usually find it more productive to write lyrics first -- chord progressions come pretty easily to me, lyrics don't, so if the lyrics I write are of passable quality, then I can write music to match... Of course, sometimes it goes the other way.. :)
Marsh Overstedt
A semi-active lyricist/composer in Eastern Kansas, writes:
About 85% of the time, the lyric because Iım basically a prose-type writer. Also because the lyric is generally the source of the hook, which is the soul of the song. Also, most of my stuff is country.
Rich Reuter
A songwriter form Dayton, Ohio and part of the acoustic duo Red Earth, writes:
Either one. Sometimes a piece of music will inspire lyrics, or sometimes the lyrics suggest a certain type of music.
Bill
A former songwriter attempting to get back on his horse after 8 dry years, wrotes:
Always the lyric -excluding the two RAGs I've written. Sometimes, just a catchy line or hook, but always the lyric. Although many times the melody seems to come simultaneously.
Gordon G. Ryan Jr.
A Songwriter from Savannah, Ga., writes:
I'll use either technique. Usually I'll come up with the hook or title and try to develope a chorous first. Then I develope story ideas in prose form before I start the verses. Once the tune is workable in some simple form I'll take the guitar or piano and get basic chords to go along with a working melody. I'll take another look at the form and then embellish the chords if necessary and get the melody to sound like a singer whose currently hot. Then I'll put the whole thing on the computer with instrumentation and work it until it sound right. Then I break it back down to just acoustic guitar and make it sound good enough to perform without other instruments. After the performance is strong I'll go back and lay down vocal tracks with the computer stuff and guitars to a four track. An alternate approach is to get a groove going either with drums, piano or guitar or combinations of these and then sing nonsense syllables until something starts to gel and then put the whole thing together using the aforementioned technique. To me the real fun part of writing is getting to play and having the feeling of a band happening when the tape is going. It doesn't beat gigging but it's the next best thing. Another good thing about writing is most music just sounds good, it's fun to listen and fun trying to be awake to the point where you have an edge and are ready to write, same as if you're practicing or training to be good at anything else. It's cool.
Arthur Wilson
A singer/songwriter from Scotland UK - working on new CD of 10 songs with my sister, writes:
I get the idea/theme and I usually then I get and ouline of the lysrics and then the tune.
Pavlo Vacatatsis
A New York Songwriter, writes:
Always, the tune comes first ( it's still the most basic element of a song). The tune sets the atmosphere,the pace,the dynamics. Of course, I always write down ideas in lyric or in prose and archive them and then I try to incorporate them in a certain song modified. Where I come from, (Greece) it used to be a common practice in the 60's-70's that well known composers would take whole pieces of poetry from well known poets ( 2 of them Nobel Prize winners) and " create" songs out of them. Sometimes the result was tuneful but in my ears it lacked authenticity. At the same time, I hate " Broadway " tunes, I do'nt care how skillfull the writers are, this is music sold by the yard or by the pound or whatever ( read Commodity). You see I am very commited in my view that folk tunes the world over ( including the Blues) are REAL songs, and their writers albeit unknown or known are the ones with the gift.
Jason Flanigan
A songwriter by lesuire from Texas, writes:
I guess it depends on what I feel like at the time. I usually compose the music first and then add the lyrics afterwards. But I have written lyrics first many a times. I think varying between the two can keep your songs more on the creative originality side of things.
Michael Evans
A songwriter writing from Waco, writes:
I have very limited musical talent (a little guitar and piano) so I write the lyrics first. But recently I have had a hard time fitting my lyrics to the music that I try to accompay it with. I have found that collaboration is the best way to go. If you have somebody that understands your style and is easy to work with then go that direction.
Carmen DiMaria
The man with the band called BONE, who wants to pick up where Lennon left off, writes:
I usually write the music first, only because I use it as a mood maker for the song, and it sets the tone for the words I would use for that material. If a song is fast and heavy I'm not gonna have lovey-dovey lyrics in it, but I can't say 100% of the time it's just music first. I've had words come to me first and then that would set the tone for the type of music to put with it. Songwriting can be very fickle if you have music in your head and no words to go with them or vice/versa. Sometimes it'll lay doormant in your mind for months if you can't make a match for either, and will only resurface when something triggers it with a line somebody says or by reading something. Preferably, I like writing the music first 'cause it's so much easier to mold the song into a finished product, especially with laying vocals ontop of the music. I do a lot of just ranting words off the top of my head and try to make sense of them later after I listen back to them. The same thing goes when I write words first and I start sculpting a melody line to fit it. Then the music sometimes comes quite natrually, but like I say, songwriting is a lifelong journey of inspirations that will convey a message and a picture in the minds of the listener. But what about those times when the words and music come at the same time? That's happened to me in dreams too where I would wake up and have a completed song in my head as if it were put there by John Lennon in heaven. Not knowing how or why it got there, it's just there. So to me those are better than writing either the words or music first because it's all done for you, subconciously.
Brian Hutzell
A pianoman/songwriter from Chicago, writes:
It varies. And sometimes they both come at once (which is always nice!)
Jeanne Comeau Murphy
A singer/songwriter from Rhode Island, writes:
Once in a great while, when the muse is really with me, I write music and lyrics simultaneously. But usually, I find it easier to write the lyrics first, or at least a rough draft of them, so I can focus on the context. I often write lyrics in some poetic form that concentrates on rhyme scheme, so that the timing is controlled even without benefit of music. After I get a rough draft of the lyrics, I work on chord progressions that fit the tone and images in the lyric...this is the tough part for me, however. I have notebooks full of lyrics still awaiting the perfect musical partner. I find, though, that if I write the music first, I concentrate less on the lyrics and they tend to be shallow and the over-all theme of the song is difficult to identify...and since I am one of those people who really "identifies" with the lyrics of a song, this is unacceptable to me, and I usually end up trashing the whole song.
Ryan Rudel
A Songwriter from Missouri, writes:
Usually the lyrics since I only learned how to play guitar to put music to my 'poems' to make them songs. But sometimes when messing around with the guitar I find a chord pattern that I think would sound nice, and I write lyrics for it. But this I find is a lot harder than music to lyrics.
Lee Harless
A songwriter from VA, writes:
I usually try to keep a balance between the two. I can never seem to do it one way all the time. It's a great challenge to keep fresh with your lyrics today, as it has all been said a million times over. I usually come up with a good hook and work on that until I get an idea for some lyrics then I will bounce on over to the verses and maybe if it calls for it, a bridge.
Carl
A Songwriter of Contemp. Christian & Secular Rock music, writes:
Music usually comes first, but not always. What begins a good song is a good hook, whether that hook is lyrics or music doesn't seem to matter as long as it's something that captures my imagination. If I can come up with a good hook, I'll take all the time I need to write & re-write until I have the song the way I want it.
Robert E. Manzanares II
A Las Vegas based guitarist of The Basics, writes:
The music. My expression comes from sights and sounds that are emitted from my speaker cabinet which come from my Les Paul and find their origin in my fingers. I work on these four factors: Rhythm, melody, harmony and tone color. Songwriting is a very expressive art form, creativity should be used freely and liberally.
Col
The Bassman from Liverpool,England, writes:
with me it is always the music then the general story, and finally the lyrics. Then it is just a matter of tidying it up and voila! a new song. I always have a clear idea as to what the lyrics are to be about, by writing a mini-essay or spider-graph on the story/situation at hand. This 'essay' usually has enough one-liners to give me a direction to head into with the lyrics. The singer of the group works the opposite way around deriving the lyrics first, followed by the music (Although I usually write the music, or the entire group chips in). Oh, if anyone wants to contact me I'm at BMSCPATT@livjm.ac.uk.
Larry McDowell
A very mysterious songwriter, writes:
When writing a piece, I have to say it is the music first. I have melodies floating constantly in my head. I seldom get blocked, I might fall into a rutt and write a couple of tunes that sound way too similar. I only wish I could write lyrics as easy as I can write the music. It is definately a demanding and mind taxing task.
Dusty Bray
A songwriter from GA, writes:
I think that it is most important to write the lyrics before writing the music.  I have found that the lyrics don't quite fit what you originally wanted the piece to sound like, and it is a lot harder for me to change lyrics than it is to fix the music, so I use my lyrics as the frame-work for the composition.  Usually, after writing my lyrics (or after being given lyrics by someone else) I take note of any musical lines or fragments which come to my mind and compose the piece from them.

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