Lyrics First vs Melody First

To prepare for writing a post on whether to go lyrics first or melody first in songwriting we did research to find out how other songwriters went about this. A ball park guess is about 85% of persons said, “melody first”. We'd like to throw our two cents into the ring.

Assume that we're talking about mainstream charting music such as pop, rock, hip-hop, and so on. It's probably the melody which instantly draws people in. In fact, it probably takes a few listens to a song before a person can remember, and sing along with, at least some of the lyrics. But, does that mean a songwriter should start with the melody when writing a song?

write songs on piano

It's not so straightforward as that. There are many aspects which help a songwriter choose their approach. Genre, artist and intended audience all play a big role. Blues music focuses more on soulful expression and lyrical themes rather than a melody. The message being delivered by the lyricist usually outweighs and melodic content. Rap is similar – the message is more weightier than the melody. Contrastingly, in metal music sometimes the lyrics are not easily discernable. So it is probably the overall tone of the song itself, possibly including a melody, that engages a listener.

Lack of melody didn't stop either Bob Dylan or Bob Geldoff writing huge hits. Take a look at the lyrics to 'Hurricane' (Dylan), and 'I Don't Like Mondays' (Geldoff) – both inspired by real world events. The message conveyed by the lyrics was of essential importance to the artist. Their prime goal was to convey a message and make it clear. I Don't Like Mondays definitely has a melody, but it's all secondary to the message.

'Yesterday' by the Beatles (specifically Paul McCartney) started off as a melody line to which lyrics were later added. The melody line was so strong in Sir Paul of McCartney's head that he shared it with others to ensure that he'd actually come up with something original before penning lyrics. Want some homework? Do a little research on the development of the lyrics to Yesterday, holder of the world record for most recorded song [1].

girl writes songs on guitar

'Billie Jean' by Michael Jackson followed a similar format when it came to writing the song. We've all heard Billie Jean a number of times, but how many words of the song can you recall? Probably a chunk of the chorus and maybe a line here and there. Michael acappellad all the instruments to compose this song before putting it to instrumentation [2]. Chad Krueger of Nickleback knew he had a hit in 'How You Remind Me' and hummed the melody to others to show the power of his song without singing the lyrics to them [3].

Bernie Taupin constantly handed Elton John written lyrics to which Elton would write the music. That's decades of hits written this way by the lyricist and musician team.

Here's an intersting thought, what about purely instrumental music? Many bands have at one time or another written a purely instrumental song. What is that holds the listener's attention? Progressive rock bands from Tool to Pink Floyd have crafted lengthy songs with minimal lyrics. And, guitar superstars Via, Satch, Yngwie and the rest of the crew take the purely instrumental approach, albiet to the extreme.

Our lay assessment is that lyrics are absorbed and processed by the mind whereas melody is processed by the heart, or soul, for want of a better word.

Thus it comes down to the writer. They choose the method of writing that suits what they wish to achieve. It may not even be a conscious choice. Are they trying to cause a revolution with provocative lyrics or going to make a listener reach for the box of tissues as the lyrics soulfully express their sorrows.

left handed guitar fretboard

The same principal would apply to a song written specifically for an audience. What response does the songwriter wish to illicit in the listener, something to think about, or something to feel?

Melody alone has a hugely powerful effect. Think of the background music to cinema and video games. The way you feel watching a certain scene is only because the director and composer want you to feel that way. Likewise with advertising, which may include carefully crafted lyrics. In fact, it's all propaganda and subversion really – to make another person think and feel a certain way. Manipulation of thoughts and feelings. Your favourite artists is no different. They just do it in a cooler fashion.

In commenting on a great song, Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi share the same sentiment when they say that if you play any full production song on a piano or guitar and it still sounds good you've got a great song. That's a pretty good assessment.

Then, of course, there's the stereotypical songwriting approach we often see portrayed - a guitarist or keyboard player working through some chords, pen in mouth. They play through a few chords and sing some sort of vocal line. They pause and write down the chords and the lyric line. Rinse and repeat.

microphone and lyrics

All of these ways of approaching songwriting have pros and cons. Perhaps we'll discuss this at another time.The gold standard? A perfect blend of inspired lyrics and engaging melody. For now, we'll encourage you to consider writing in a style you don't use so much, if at all. Difficult at first. Quite possibly. But most things are!

In an interview Sambora was asked- Let's talk about songwriting. If you can put it into words, what have you learned over the years? Can you learn something over time?

"Absolutely. Sure. You just gotta keep at it. Songwriting is something that's very daunting until you have your first successful song, I think. And you can measure success by a couple of different things: Finishing a song first lyrically and looking at it yourself and saying, 'OK, now I have some cohesive lyrics.'

"And then the other part of success is obviously making a record and having it be accepted by people, having it touch people and actually mean something to people. Livin' On A Prayer, Wanted Dead Or Alive, It's My Life - I'm lucky to have written a bunch of those." [4]

Following on from that thought let's close this out by paraphrasing some wise words given to me by my one of my university lecturers (Bachelor of Popular Music), “You won't all be rock stars. But you'll probably all make it.”

Happy Jamming.

IK Multimedia's iLoud Micro Monitor

[1] Guiness Book of World Records, 2009, [2] You Are Not Alone, Jermaine Jackson, 2011, [3] Nickleback – Road To Success, 2005, [4] musicradar, April 2010

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