What’s the Difference Between a Lyricist and a Songwriter?

A songwriter is someone who creates music compositions. This might include anything from penning lyrics to developing hooks and arranging melodies, or all of the above combined. A lyricist is someone who specifically comes up with and writes the lyrics to a song.

In a song, there are many different elements and layers braided together to create a harmonious combination. It is pivotal to find a functioning balance between melody, arrangement, and lyrics to create something listeners can relate to and appreciate.

Sometimes this balance requires some teamwork to be effective. After all, when dealing with so many different elements, it can be refreshing to have more than one set of ears and one set of hands.

Big record labels, for instance, have specific teams for their songwriting duties. These teams usually include at least a composer/songwriter, a lyricist, an arranger, and a producer. Of course, to bring the song to reality performers are essential too.

Listeners, in fact, usually tend to identify a song merely with its main performer, usually the lead singer.

But how about the other people that made the song happen?

The role of a songwriter

Songwriters usually write both melodies and lyrics, although they could also focus only on one element at a time.

The most known figure in this field is the classic singer-songwriting/guitarist, in the like of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, or, more recently, Ed Sheeran.

Many songwriters, however, don’t get to sing the songs they compose. Some of them work for record labels who later pass the material onto popular performers. Some others work on commissions, on a freelance basis (for example for movies or shows).

Whatever project they work on, they can create the backbone of a song from top to bottom: from chord progressions to melodies, from formal structure to lyrics.

Why do we need lyricists then?

The role of a lyricist

Well, sometimes songwriters are great at composing music but are not strong at crafting lyrics.

On the other hand, there are poets and writers out there who constantly get ideas for songs but who have no clue on how to play an instrument, let alone compose a melody!

In both scenarios, the songwriter and the lyricist work together to create an interesting synergy.

After all, writing lyrics requires a specific set of skills involving metrics, communicative strategies, a formidable knowledge of the language, and a vivid imagination. You might find these requirements in a poet, but not necessarily in a good composer.

To simplify, we could say that a songwriter’s toolbox is made of notes and chords, while a lyricist’s toolbox is made of words. Only the two toolboxes combined can generate a great song.

On a corporate level, where big record labels stand, the tasks involved in the songwriting process are often split to ensure quality or, at least, hype and excitement over the song.

With smaller, independent projects, you often see the opposite, either with a solo artist writing both melody and lyrics or with a band where members cooperate equally to the composition.

There is no fixed rule here, but rather opportunities for musicians and writers at all levels.

Am I a songwriter or a lyricist?

First of all, be aware that you could be or could have been both.

You might have composed some of your songs and written some of your lyrics, or you might have composed a melody over someone else’s lyrics and vice versa. Again, there is no fixed rule and there are no fixed roles in the music business. It depends on the project, on the team, and even on your very own inspiration.

The main element to consider when trying to describe yourself either as a songwriter or a lyricist pertains to your set of skills.

Can you play an instrument and compose a song? Then you’re a songwriter.

Can you write perfectly crafted verses but without being able to play an instrument or come up with a structured melody? Then you’re a lyricist.

These two terms are often used interchangeably in common language, but the jobs they represent require different skills and mindsets, so whoever plays a role in the music industry should know how to use them properly.

Arrangers and producers

Songwriters and lyricists are not enough.

When a song has the perfect melody and the perfect lyrics, it still needs vital elements to come to life and become enjoyable by the listeners.

It surely needs an arrangement, for a start.

How is the melody going to be supported throughout the song? Will there be an acoustic guitar simply strumming out chords? What about a bass pedal? Or some drums?

The arrangement is what defines the genre, mood, style, and tone of a song. It is essential, even in independent, stripped-down, low-budget productions. After all, even the choice of recording an acoustic song, with only vocals and a guitar, is an arranging choice. Now, some songwriters are actually good arrangers too, but this is an exception rather than the rule.

Studios and record labels usually hire professional arrangers to take care of this delicate phase in the song-building process.

Quite often producers are also the arrangers of the project.

What does a producer do?

It is a complex and interesting role, including tasks such as: choosing the right songs to fit the context of the release, making decisions on the tone of the songs, giving direction to all the professionals involved to get closer to their vision, and so on.

A producer is in music what a director is in movies, basically.

To sum up…

The interesting fact about all the roles involved in the song-making process is that they can be assumed by one person or by dozens of them. This means that many different kinds of people, with different sets of skills, can have a go at making it in the music industry.

All in all, the songwriter and lyricist are two essential elements in the creation of a great song. Although their roles might differ depending on the project and the team involved, they both bring important skills to the table. Whether you’re a songwriter or a lyricist, know that your skills are valuable and in demand!

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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