Which Comes First: Music or Lyrics?

Sheet music words or music

Dayne Topkin

One of the first questions songwriters get asked is whether it’s best to write the music or lyrics first.

There is no right answer actually, in general it depends. Some songwriters start by playing around on a chord structure and working out the melody, whereas others start from the lyrics and set them to music. Some even write both at the same time.

While there is no correct way to write a song, the way you write influences the final result. Personally, I started off writing the melody first and then adding the lyrics, because that’s what I learnt at school. After a while, though, I began to find this approach a bit limited, so I experimented with writing the lyrics first as well. Sometimes I write both at the same time. Often I write the lyrics slowly bit by bit, while composing the music. From there I continue with what I feel like at the moment, sometimes with the lyrics and sometimes with the music. In general, I guess melodies are easier for me than lyrics, but it’s definitely not the only way I write. 

In fact, changing up the way you write songs can be a really good creative exercise. There are various techniques you can try out to see what works best. Some of these include writing the lyrics first with no music (a very difficult thing for a musician), writing the lyrics bit by bit while composing (love this method!) or adding the lyrics at the end, when all the musical part is finished.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Music First

Writing melodies first usually pushes you to have a more defined structure and also catchier hooks.

However, the lyrics may be added to “fit in” with the music and therefore be a little bland or forgettable. Sometimes, they may sound good but not make a whole lot of sense; this happens when the lyrics are basically taking the place of another musical instrument. They have a rhythmic feel based on the “sound” of the words but not necessarily the meaning.

Musicians tend to take this route (me included); we loooove melodies, riffs, seventh chords, inversions and tend to pay less attention to the lyrics. For most musicians, the lyrics are there to put the music on display.

I actually believe that a great melody can still make a song successful even if the lyrics are bad or bland. The opposite however is rarely true. I hear the melody first and everything else after and, while this may not resonate with everyone, I still believe that the music reaches the listener before the lyrics.

In any case, a music first approach will usually ensure that you have a catchy tune that your listeners end up humming because you pay more attention to the melody.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Lyrics First

Writing the lyrics first basically equates to putting poetry to music. While this will ensure that your lyrics are deep and have a story or idea.  The melodies however, may not be as structured and tend to move around more, because the music is tailored to fit the lyrics. Consequently, it may be harder to create catchy hooks and make a song memorable.  

In this case, the music is showcasing the lyrics, and not the other way round. It’s basically putting poetry to music. To avoid it sounding like an endless monologue with no structure, try to write your lyrics in a structured way. Rhymes, assonances and a clear idea of where your verses and choruses will go definitely help. 

Tips to Start Writing Songs

If you’re not sure how to write your first song, find a quiet place to experiment and see whether the music or lyrics come first. As a strong musician, you might find it easier to find a chord progression you like and then try to build a melody from there. If you’re more of a words person, find a theme or a sentence you particularly like and go from there.

In general, try to follow a structure for your song. The traditional pop song structure, which deserves it’s own post (soon!), usually follows a sequence of verse – chorus – verse – chorus – bridge – final chorus. Sometimes there are other parts, such as pre-choruses or instrumentals. If your song has no structure, it will sound like a stream of consciousness. Consequently, it will be very difficult for people to memorise or sing.

Always have a vocal recorder on hand, because you never know when an idea will hit you. This is now very simple, thanks to technology, as all you need is a vocal recording app on your phone. My favourite one is Music Memos, as it automatically analyses chords as well if you’re using a musical instrument. If you get some kind of inspiration when you’re already in bed and half asleep, GET UP AND RECORD IT. I made this mistake endless times. I thought I was too tired and I could always write it down in the morning, right? WRONG! Needless to say, I’d completely forgotten it by the following day.

It’s not usually about music OR lyrics though. Both music and lyrics are essential to write a good song. As a songwriter, it’s important to work on both! In fact, changing up the way you write songs can be a really good creative exercise. You can try writing the lyrics first with no music (a very difficult thing for a musician), writing the lyrics bit by bit while composing (love this method!) or adding the lyrics at the end, when all the musical part is finished.

The point is not to worry about whether it’s best to write music or lyrics first. The most important thing is to focus on writing a good song following whatever method works for you. If you have the right motivation, it really isn’t important whether you write music or lyrics first. 

What do you write first, music or lyrics? Do you have a preferred method for writing songs? Let me know in the comments!

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