Should You Write Lyrics or Music First?
Most songwriters start with the music first and then incorporate the lyrics. It makes sense because music listeners tend to prioritize the melody, groove, and timbre over the lyrics. However, writing the lyrics first can be a fascinating exercise, especially for mid to high-level composers.
If you’re trying to find out which one is easier (to start with the lyrics or the music), the correct answer is: to start with the music. But does that mean you should write the music first every single time? Not really. Just because something is easier doesn’t mean it’s automatically better.
There are pros and cons to both methods, and it takes some deeper analysis to truly understand the benefits and challenges associated with each one. My recommendation is that you try both and see what works best for you, particularly if you already know your way around songwriting.
Writing the music first
Writing the music first involves putting down some sort of musical element before starting to work on the lyrics. It doesn’t have to be the complete instrumental, with all of the arrangements. It can be something as simple as a melody, a basic beat, and even a short hook.
This elementary musical element should work as a guideline to the vocal melody, which can later provide hints as to what the lyrics should be. For example: if you’ve come up with a happy guitar chord progression, you may want to explore topics such as falling in love, partying with friends, or enjoying the summer.
As previously stated, starting with the music is much easier than starting with the lyrics. While pretty much anyone can sing a series of random words over a basic instrumental, it takes some advanced songwriting knowledge to turn a poem into a full song.
Starting with the music is also a much more popular option than starting with the lyrics. The Swedish producer Max Martin worked with Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and many other famous pop stars and is but one example of a successful musician who likes to start with a simple melody. His melodic math formula involves coming up with a catchy melody first and then working on the lyrics.
Finally, writing the music first is advisable because most music fans tend to value “musical” aspects over the words used in a song. Sometimes, the sheer way the syllables sound is more important to the impact a song has than the actual meaning conveyed by its lyrics.
So, is starting with the music all good? Well, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your songs. If your goal is to create catchy pop tunes without much substance, overlooking the lyrics is not so bad. But if you want to write a song that tells a specific story or uses words to transmit a particular feeling, starting with the music can pose a challenge.
The pros and cons of starting with the music
Pro: it’s much easier – Words have musical substance, but there’s nothing quite like relying on a solid instrumental guideline with a specific key, tempo, and vibe to complete a full song.
Pro: it’s more straightforward – Lyrics matter in music, but not as much as the music itself. Starting with the music is more straightforward because it allows songwriters to prioritize what people value the most in a song: aspects such as the melody, the groove, the sounds used, and the overall feel.
Pro: it can inspire the creation of the lyrics – This advantage works the other way around too, but it’s still worth noting. Melodies and even beats can guide songwriters during the lyric-writing process, inspiring them to come up with the appropriate words.
Con: it makes writing great lyrics harder – Writing great lyrics is never easy, but it’s even harder when you have to fit the words into a previously-established instrumental background. While sounds can inspire lyrics, they also have the power to restrain them.
A few tips for starting with the music
- Try to come up with at least a portion of the lyrics as soon as possible. Lyric writing becomes increasingly harder as more and more elements are added to an instrumental.
- Don’t overcomplicate before having a solid vocal melody. Songwriting should go from simple to complex, never the other way around, and the vocal melody is the most important part of any song.
- Find one word that describes the song you want to make. Since you’re only adding the lyrics later, why not decide on a theme beforehand so there’s a common principle to both the music and the lyrics? Even words as simple as “winter,” “anger,” or “France” can give you a ton of inspiration.
Writing the lyrics first
Writing the lyrics first involves coming up with at least a portion of the lyrics of a song before having access to any instrumental parts. Songwriters who turn famous poems into songs, for instance, are forced to adapt the entire instrumental of a song to the words of the poem.
The process of writing the lyrics first can be utterly inspiring, but only if you know your way around music. While pretty much anyone can effortlessly speak and write, not all people are as comfortable with creating chord progressions, turning full sentences into vocal melodies, or determining what the tempo of a song should be based on a set of words alone.
For this reason, starting with the lyrics is way harder than starting with the music and is the sort of stuff you should only be doing once you have some experience as a songwriter. Harder, of course, doesn’t mean worse: the fact that starting with the lyrics is challenging is precisely what makes it such an interesting songwriting method.
The pros and cons of starting with the lyrics
Pro: it’s a great test for composers – If you’ve been writing songs for years and want to put your songwriting skills up to the test, a good way to do so is to come up with a full song around a set of pre-determined lyrics.
Pro: it makes it easier to create great lyrics – When you start writing music with a pen and a piece of paper, you can truly speak from the heart and let your most honest feelings show. It feels more like writing a poem and less like writing the lyrics to a song.
Pro: it helps to inspire the music – Again, this advantage also works the other way around. Undeniably, though, having a specific set of words before creating the music can be extremely inspiring and provide experienced composers with useful creative cues. If the lyrics are sad, for example, you can start with a minor chord progression, and vice-versa.
Con: it’s not advisable for beginners – If you’re new to songwriting, music theory, and song arrangement, it can be frustrating to start with the lyrics. Starting with the lyrics can be a challenge even to mid-level composers, so don’t get ahead of yourself if you’re still a beginner.
Con: it can hold the music back – When you start with the lyrics, there’s a chance you’ll spend more time trying to come up with music that fits the lyrics than with music that’s actually good.
A few tips for starting with the lyrics
- Keep in mind that your lyrics will have to fit into a musical structure. Don’t come up with bizarre poems, and try to keep each verse about the same size. If needed, scratch a few words so that every verse has the same number of syllables.
- Avoid complicated words. Nobody likes a snob, but that’s not why you should avoid including “fancy” words in your lyrics. You should stay away from complicated words because they tend to be harder to sing. Why use terms like “endearment” when a simple “love” can do the trick?
- Be flexible. Starting with the lyrics doesn’t mean you have to respect the lyrics you’ve put down in their entirety. The songwriting process should be fluid and you should be prepared to make changes to the lyrics once you start working on the music.
In music, the music comes first. If you’re reading this article because you’re starting your songwriting career and collecting some tips on the subject, I advise you to start with the music first, not the lyrics.
But if you already know your way around songwriting and want to explore something new, why not give the lyrics-first method a try? Either way, all musicians who wish to be called complete songwriters should master (or at least test) both formulas.