Songwriters use many techniques to compose songs. There isn’t any one right or wrong way, it’s simply a matter of preference. It’s helpful to know how to write a song if you only have music or lyrics because sometimes you will have certain limitations that you will need work within.
Should you write the music or lyrics first?
It’s a debate as old as, well, since people have been writing songs. At least that’s what I imagine.
Personally, I believe the only should is that you should do what is best for the song.
Not every song is written the same way.
Some artists would say the song “wants” to be written a certain way. This is what inspiration is all about.
There are many famous songwriters who used one or the other exclusively and others who sometimes write the lyrics first, or the music, or both at the same time.
George Gershwin and Elton John worked with lyricists to compose their hits.
Many other songs’ lyrics were written with a co-writer after the main musical idea was “laid down.”
Some examples are, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” by Stevie Wonder and “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith.
So you can see… there are many ways to go about writing a song.
No matter how inspiration strikes, just go with it.
Inspiration doesn’t always strike… so you gotta create your own inspiration.
That’s what we’ll be talking about here.
There are four main parts we’re talking about here:
Lyrics – the words of the song
Melody – the notes that are being sung
Chords – these are the main music supporting the melody and the lyrics
Percussion / Rhythm instruments
Using Percussion to Inspire Your Music
If you don’t think drums are important to writing a song then I suggest you listen to these gems:
“Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman
“Wipe Out” by The Surfaris
“Rosanna” by TOTO
Percussions doesn’t always contribute significantly to the lyrics, melody, or chord progression… But they do have an influence.
White Stripes singer Jack White was originally a drummer and this influence is heard in his guitar playing.
Steven Tyler from Aerosmith was also a drummer and this can be heard in his rhythmic lyrical delivery.
Songwriting Music First Method
You can write the lyrics and melody after writing the music first.
The way this works is the instrumental inspires the lyrics or at least sets the “atmosphere” and mood for the lyrics.
You can contrast the feel of the music with lyrics for an interesting effect…
For example, many people only hear the fun, upbeat sound of “Hey Ya” by Outkast but don’t realize the lyrics deal in darker subject matter.
Here’s how you can use the “music first” strategy:
Play your chord progression, riff, drum beat or whatever musical part you have written.
You can also just improvise over what you are playing.
If you’re a singer you can scat or sing nonsense lyrics. (This is how “Yesterday” by the Beatles was written originally.)
Once you find a melody you like, you can polish up and add lyrics you want to use in the final version.
If you’re lucky, you may be inspired with fully-formed “final” lyrics. Congrats!
Songwriting Lyrics First Method
Poetry often inspires songs.
To make poetry into a song you’ll need to add a melody and some music.
The way you can do this is to pay attention to what makes the poetry “work.”
Not all poems are the same or use the same devices… Find out what makes your poem work and translate that into music.
For example, the rhyming scheme may be very set and defined in your poem. In this case, having a consistent rhythm and structure would be important in the song.
You can use that as a basis for constructing a chord progression.
If you know who will be singing the song, you can intentionally write in a musical key that the singer will find ease in singing.
If your lyrics create certain imagery you can use those to inspire the music as well.
If your lyrics are dark and conjure frightening thoughts… you can use this to create a haunting musical environment.
“The Way I Am” by Eminem comes to mind here. There’s a dark piano arpeggio and church bells clanging away with a strong threatening beat backing it all up that fits nicely with the threatening lyrics.
“If you mess with me you might end up at a funeral.” That’s what this feeling suggests to me… intentional? I’ll leave that up to you.
Let the lyrics guide you…
Find out what makes your lyrics special and what stands out the most about them. Then you have a basis for the kind of music that should accompany them.
Adding a melody to your lyrics
Let’s say we have music and lyrics but no melody… How do we create a melody?
First, find out what key you’re in. If you’re playing chords find out which key contains most of the chords you’re playing.
You may not even need to actually know the key of the song.
Typically, you can hum along to the chord progression and if it “sounds good” then you’ll be in the key.
The reason it helps to know the key of the song is because you will know specifically what notes you can play to improvise over the chord progression with.
There might be some possible pitches you were neglecting. This is when it’s helpful to know a bit of music theory.
There are some interesting relationships you can create between the melody and chord progressions when you have an understanding of the underlying mechanics.
Kurt Cobain from Nirvana was an expert at making the melody contain a note that was missing from the chords he was playing.
Typically, the notes sang would be contained in the chords NOT the melody.
This had the effect of emphasizing what he was singing in a big way that felt oddly out of place even though it worked perfectly from a musical standpoint.
In the case of Nirvana and other musicians, perhaps it’s not intentional and many simply go by the “feel.”
However, this is the power of understanding music theory.
What is the right way to write a song
My thoughts are that ultimately it doesn’t matter… as long as the songs get written!
Knowing how to use lyrics, melody, and music are tools you can use. They’re like colors in your palette you can use to paint a masterpiece.
The more you can utilize, the more options you have.
Sometimes you can borrow the strengths of other musicians by collaborating.
It might not make sense for you to become a great pianist if you’ve already spent a lot of time developing your singing voice.
Or it might make sense, it’s up to you where you want to put your energy.
In my opinion, as a songwriter you must do everything to serve the song.
It might take you out of your comfort zone… but that’s the fun of songwriting and music in general. It’s thrilling.
Was this helpful for you? Let me know your thoughts and what you wished I covered in the comments! How do you write songs: Songwriting Music or Lyrics first?