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What comes first, lyrics or melody?

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People have asked me this and I think there is no right answer. I tend to hum melodies all the time, I just make them up. So for me it is easier to start with melodies. But I’ve somehow gotten in my head the idea that my lyrics need to make more sense and probably should happen first. I guess I’m writing this post for selfish reasons, to undo this silly thought.

Structure is not what art is about, at least not in the initial stages where creativity is at its infancy. Actually, I think we humans haven’t figured out exactly how creativity works, but we want to act like we know it all. It would be a bit conceited to pretend like we know what’s going on when creativity strikes. So I say go with what happens more naturally to you, whether it is the lyrics or the melody. But I’ll share some facts and insights.

I connect with music for sonic reasons. And yes, there have been times when maybe a lyric happens first, or even both happen simultaneously. For some people lyrics are what inspires the song. I’m gonna guess that folks like Jim Morrison and Elvis Costello probably wrote/write lyrics first. I’m very jealous of this endearing species, because I have a really hard time coming up with good words out of nothing. This has led me to research the craft of lyric writing and try to get better at it.

I’ve read a few books on lyric writing, but the truth is that little success has come from them. Lyric writing books tend to tell the reader what to do and how to do it. At least that’s how I feel when I read them. I end up thinking in a much too structured manner. It totally kills my creativity.

Lyric writing enthusiasts and communities also tend to place emphasis on the idea that lyrics need to make sense in order to be commercially successful or simply good. And this isn’t always the case. I don’t think Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make a lot of sense. Or stuff by Bon Iver. Kurt Cobain would write lyrics last when coming up with songs, sometimes even right in the studio as he recorded takes. Justin Vernon from Bon Iver said the following in an AV Club interview in regards to his arguably most successful record For Emma, Forever Ago: “I’ve always been into the Springsteen thing, writing pretty literally and trying to tell stories. With these songs I was creating sounds first. I would create a space for the vocals, then transcribe vocal sounds and listen to what it sounded like. I would get lyric ideas from the sound of the voice. And I was actually able to pull out more meaningful stuff, personally speaking, because of that.” This was Justin’s first record that made it big, so that tells us something.

As someone who went to music school for probably more years than necessary, I can tell you that I felt the need to be methodical about a lot of things in order to succeed in school. I felt that I had to learn and stick to the theories and proven techniques. Which makes sense, otherwise why would there even be a school in the first place?  But one should keep in mind that while it can be useful to learn the academic side of things, it isn’t always the best road to success. There is empty space outside of the box. There is room for new rules to be created in the world, otherwise what would be the point if all has already been done? So the next time you’re composing music, if the lyrics aren’t happening then try switching to sounds and vice-versa. Be willing to try anything to get that song written. And as far as making sense of lyrics goes, whatever… try both ways, maybe a happy medium? Make something that invokes a mood and feeling and I think that’s successful enough. Any thoughts on this?


– Pavel

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