“What comes first? Melody or lyrics?” This is a question I get asked a lot.
My answer: When I sit down to write by myself, lyrics — or at least a title or a concept — come first. Then I marry it/them to a melody and a chord progression. That’s just me. Everyone has their process. There’s no right or wrong. But to me, words are the seed that initiates a new song.
So much so that I’m absolutely perplexed when someone asks me to critique their song and doesn’t include the lyrics with the MP3 they send me. As if lyrics were incidental. Gravy. Icing on the cake.
Back in the day, if you showed up to play a song for Clive Davis without supplying a hard copy lyric sheet, you’d be escorted out of his office. And that would be a shame after it took so long to get in.
Why have lyrics become so secondary nowadays? I have my theories.
For one thing, with current mainstream pop music being so electronic and beat-driven, it’s the backing track (the musical bed) that has become the star of the show, with the lyrics serving as the supporting cast. One has to wonder if all the triggering of sounds and beats — now such an integral part of the modern songwriting process — is the reason why vibe has leapfrogged all else in the hierarchy of song ingredients. Furthermore, because technology has replaced some of the more human-made musical choices, perhaps we’re simply more cavalier when it comes to other ingredients. Like the WORDS!
Don’t get me wrong. Vibe is essential. But vibe is result of the treatment used (i.e., the production) to usher lyrics and melody into the world — the clothing they’re dressed in, so to speak. The same song can be dressed in many different outfits. But a song has only one lyric. I want to know what they are, especially if you want my opinion of your song.
Yet I’ve recently discovered that when I listen to music (as opposed to creating it), it’s the vibe that initially draws me in. That’s right. It’s vibe that gets my attention. Not the lyrics. At least at first.
I realize this may sound a little hypocritical, but in my defense, it’s occurred to me that perhaps songwriters relate to music differently depending on whether we’re a music “user” — i.e., in a car getting fed random curated playlists — or we’re involved in the creative writing (or critiquing) process. Personally, I look to vibe to service my mood — to take me deeper into the one I’m in (will it enhance my hot tub experience / Sunday night cooking / two-mile run?), or rescue me from it (lift me up or calm me down).
These different behaviors make sense because I didn’t become a songwriter with the intention of enhancing mood. Rather, it was my therapy. I wanted to better understand myself. I wanted to connect with others via a universal concept with a unique point of view. It was, admittedly, all about the words.
That said, if a song’s vibe pulls me in, I’ll pay more attention to the lyric second or third time around — but should I find no substance, I move on. Thank you, next!
Because lyrics matter.
What matters most to you? What comes first when you’re writing? When you’re listening?
Whatever your response, if you’re asking someone to critique your song, please remember to include the lyrics!