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Lyrics or Melody: Which Comes First in the Songwriting Process?

If you are new to songwriting, you may wonder which to compose first: lyrics or melody? If you ask different songwriters, they will give you different answers. There are no hard and fast rules to writing a song. But you can imagine if you are in nature admiring the beautiful greenery and a silky-blue flowing river in front of you, you might be inspired by a melody. Conversely, you might think of lyrics first while brainstorming a song composition in a noisy bus.

In this post, we will go deep into the different approaches to songwriting and how writing lyrics or melody first will affect the development of a song.

Lyrics First Approach

A songwriter from an independent group “An Urban Tapestry” shared, “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.”

Elton John too was known for writing lyrics first in his early days as a songwriter. The prolific start teamed up with Bernie Taupin, who would write a complete lyric and John would set it. Both Taupin and John began and continued with a word-first collaboration.

Lyric is a craft that can be practiced for a long time. The trick to writing good lyrics is to leave enough space for the melody to play its part. This means that lyrics have to be succinct and writers should avoid overcrowding in the craft of lyric writing.

Perhaps the most important approach to writing lyrics is to be aware of your theme. What is the song about? What are you trying to say? What emotions do you want to evoke in your listeners?

There is no harm in noodling around to write down your ideas. But eventually, you will have to start the writing by deciding on the theme of your song. You can start by adding some lines and even random words about things you have observed or noticed. It is always a good idea to write down words, which you can trim down and edit later so as not to lose any ideas that may prove useful.

As to where to write your lyrics, pen and paper never fail as they are very accessible when you have inspiration. Otherwise, you can record your lyrical ideas into the voice recorder of your mobile phone. Who knows, you may think of a melody as you record your lyrics and you can start singing!

If you are opting to write the verse-chorus form, it’s highly recommended that you write the chorus first - since the chorus is the part of the song most people will remember and sing along to. It’s not uncommon to use dummy words to help you construct the song if you have not decided on the words you want yet.

Once you are happy with the words of your chorus, you can start writing a verse. Remember that less is more and make the line length and syllable count match up for the corresponding lines in each verse. If your structure contains other sections such as a bridge, go ahead and write more lyrics for them too.

Melody First Approach

If you think of melody first before the words then naturally writing music is more of your thing. The process for the melody first approach is similar to the lyrics first approach. First, you need to consider the emotional landscape of your song. What chord structure and harmonic landscape will shape the emotion you want to convey? How will the tempo affect the emotional tone that you want to create?

Next, sketch out some musical ideas such as chord progressions, a guitar riff, or a bass line. It's good to have all these ideas recorded into a voice recorder or on your phone. No matter how great the melody is, we can forget the tune if we don’t record it. We have to stress that structure is as important in writing lyrics as in composing melodies. You have to know what you are building before you begin your work.

You might start writing the vocal melody first before figuring out the chords that work with it, there is no right or wrong way to do this. Here is where having basic knowledge of music theory with be very helpful as it can help you know what works or doesn’t work when building a melody. Last but not least, give yourself time away from your song creation as it can give you space for unexpected inspiration.

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John Johnson
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