Music or Lyrics – Which Comes First?

Ancient Question Resolved Here

Who at some point hasn't wanted to ask a good songwriter what they write first, the music or the lyrics? And who has actually not asked that question in an interview to some road weary songwriter who would much rather talk about their latest trilogy in D minor, the saddest of all keys?

So let's settle the question here and now, once and for all. The answer is - and you knew this was coming - it depends. Boo! Zoot alors! Zat is ze cop out!

Here's why...

Music First

During my early years as a songwriter I employed the "magic" method of songwriting. That is:

  1. play your guitar until you find something that sounds cool
  2. start mumbling syllables to go with the cool chords you are playing
  3. wait for the magical moment when you suddenly find just the write phrase
  4. Build an incredible song around that phrase

Steps #1-3 came pretty frequently, but step #4 not so much. It's challenging to build songs around phrases like "boodooloo bam bam day", "oo oo, yeah, unh-huh" and "wadji so ginna feel alright". In those cases, the music always inspired the lyric. Songs can be written that way, but they usually do not have an interesting and coherent story line or thought progression - or - they focus mostly on music and production and the lyrics take on a somewhat instrumental role. That can be cool too, but you usually don't end up with a lyric that has much depth. I like depth, but it requires a different approach.

Lyric First

Enter the concept of finding an idea, planning where to take it and writing around that. It's called an outline. Yeah, shoulda paid more attention in Creative Writing 101. What may save you from feeling like you're sitting in English class is that you don't have to write your outline down. You can just...remember it.

Does the title of the song tell you what it's about in a couple of words? Does it appear strategically in the chorus (the part you want people to be able to sing after hearing the song once)? If there isn't a chorus (Verse, Verse, Bridge, Verse), does it appear at the beginning and/or end of the verses? Is there a twist in the bridge that adds a new shade of meaning to the title - so that the chorus means something new the last time around?

Bottom Line

I'm a proponent of lyric first these days. At least, the IDEA first. That usually inspires a phrase or line that is rhythmical begins the musical journey.

Here's a song that I struggled mightily with, but ended up liking because it makes sense. It started with a phrase we've all heard - "rise and fall". There are so many things that rise and fall - chest when breathing, temperature, waves, empires, stock market. I thought this song would be easy. I tore it up and started over six or seven times. Finally, in the bathtub, a simple thought appeared that made sense and I built on it. From there, it was pretty easy.

  •       1.      Rise And Fall - Portis-Cathers

I've ended up tossing most of the songs I wrote early on. The ideas just didn't hold up. A much higher percentage of my songs are keepers these days. So...idea first...along with some cool music...then some lyrics...then some more music...