A question I get asked a lot is “How do you write a song? Do you write the words first or the music first?” Obviously, the answer to question is different for every individual songwriter. I can only speak to my unique circumstances and I am very much a “words first” songwriter. I have never felt inspired to write a melody isolated from any lyrical idea. That said, I have almost never written a complete lyric before starting on the melody. The two typically happen organically, at the same time, with the lyric taking a small head-start.
When I sit down to write a new lyric, I usually don’t have a great idea already in mind. I feel like the trick to developing songwriting skill is to write regularly and not only when feeling inspired. This means I have to spend some time brainstorming or looking through my lyric book at past brainstorming sessions before I can start. Sometimes I brainstorm freely, and sometimes I used constrains. For example, when I wrote Canary the constraint was “animals.” I wrote a list of almost thirty animals before the word canary struck me as a song-title.
Once I think I have a good idea for a song I spend some time fleshing it out. Often I’ll write a few paragraphs summarizing the key ideas of the song. I try and make sure I understand the point of view of the subject, where the action is taking place, and any other details that may or may not turn up in the song. Sometimes I’ll try writing a few lines of the song, but lately my next step has been to follow Pat Pattison’s lyric-worksheet process which involves listing key rhyming words and using my thesaurus in conjunction with my rhyming dictionary to exhaust lyrical possibilities. This process can be found in detail in Writing Better Lyrics.
By the time I’ve written a few lines of the song I usually already have an idea of what the melody should be. I like melodies that mimic speech cadences since I feel like they are the most singable and natural. I’ll sit down at the piano with my recorder and try out a few different melodies to see what works best. I continue this trial and error process until the rest of the melody is written. Admittedly, I am a lot more process-oriented when it comes to lyrics then I am with melody.
Now I want to make a clear and important note here that everything I just said is gets me usually about 60% through a song. There have been a few times when I’ve written a song completely on my own but ever since I started songwriting I have also been collaborating with other musicians. For the last album, Mark Ferguson and I worked closely to write all the material. Sometimes he would give my tunes a harmonic makeover, other times he would write a bridge. Having collaborators in my life has been a really important part of the writing process for me. I’ve never been afraid to take a half-finished song to someone with more experience than me and get help finishing it. Sometimes those first steps can lead to really valuable collaborating relationships and result in great finished work.
This post, of course, says nothing about how I write lyrics to someone else’s completed melody, but I think I’ll save that for next time!