Songwriting – What comes first music or lyrics?

As someone who has been writing songs for years, I wanted to try and answer this question that a lot of aspiring songwriters still ask:

When you’re writing a song, what comes first, music or lyrics?  

Also, maybe more importantly, is one way superior to the other? For instance, will one produce better songs?  Here is what I think, based on years of experience.

Basically, it can go either way.  It really depends on your songwriting process.  A lot of people start with the music, because they’re musicians.  Their skill is to write music, and so, logically, writing lyrics comes second to that.  

On the other hand, some songwriters are more into it for the writing, because the writing is what more allows them to express their thoughts and feelings.  So those types of artists often start with an idea for a song, lyrically, and work off of that.  

Many times, the lyrics and the music are written independently of one another, and are brought together later.  You don’t have to do everything all at once, or even at the same time.  

I’ve written songs where I’ve had the music for years, and still haven’t found the right lyrics to go with it.  I also have songs where the music is basically written, and I can’t find the right lyrical angle.  

And then, there’s the songs that you sit down and ten minutes later you have it all written – like magic!

How Do Professional Songwriters Do It?

Good or bad, I have written a lot of songs.  Here’s one of my songs so you can hear an example of the kind of songs I write.

I think I have a pretty good idea of how the pros do it.  Basically, my understanding is that pros are systematic about it, and spend all day sitting around trying to come up with catchy parts to songs, whether it be a lyrical hook, or an instrumental hook.  

For these professionals who actually work in the industry, they try to write songs for a particular demographic, and the form of the song reflects that.

In my opinion, this is why a lot of songs suck, and that’s because these so-called pros are writing songs for the lowest common denominator in order to make the most cash possible.  

So the songs have to be catchy, they can’t be too specific, they can’t be too long (a lot of people have ADHD these days) and they must appeal to the demographic they’re going after, which is usually a younger audience.

Music First, Lyrics Second Example – Personal Story

So there’s this band from Winnipeg, Manitoba that I think is fucking great called Kittens.  A few years ago, I heard that their singer died.  I was mega bummed out.  If you’re into hardcore music, check them out.  Here’s one of their songs.

Fuck I just love these guys.  Anyway, back a few years ago I wanted to write a cool song that sounded kinda like Kittens, so I tried to come up with something.  I came up with this grimy riff, and a chorus, and I recorded it.  It didn’t have a title, and it was just music.  Oh, actually, I did give it a title – Man of Interest.  

jk-phil-ose
J.K. Phil Osé

Then, I showed it to my buddy J.K. Phil Osé, who I’ve been playing with in bands for years.  He took the recording and added lyrics, vocals, and guitar solos.  

When he showed me what he did I was really excited.  I was like, “Holy shit dude, that’s awesome!”  In fact, I remember when I showed him the song, he got to work on it like that night and I couldn’t sleep because I could hear him writing his solos for it and yelling shit downstairs.  

Here’s how it turned out:

The reason I mention this song is because it was just music, and I couldn’t think of anything lyrically, so my buddy helped me out.  And now I think it’s one of my favorite songs the two of us have written together, which is saying something, because we’ve written a bunch of stuff together. 

Lyrics First, Music Second – Personal Story #2

About 7 years ago, I was doing some landscaping for a lady who needed some yardwork done on a regular basis.  I would go there with my (at the time) girlfriend, and we’d actually do the work together to make a few extra bucks.  

Eventually, we broke up, and then I was the one left doing all this yard work, which I basically didn’t like that much.  Well, it was ok, but at the time, it seemed to suck much more because after she bailed, I had more work to do.  It was a nice yard though.

Anyway, one day I was mowing that goddamn lawn for the umpteenth time and I came up with some lyrics in my head.  The lyrics were kind of about this break-up I’d just experienced, and they sort of came to me all at once.  

I basically just thought of them in my head and had nowhere to write them down.  Then, after mowing the lawn, I went to my car and found some paper and a pen kicking around in the glove box.

 That’s when I jotted it all down on some little scrap piece of paper.  Then I went back to pulling weeds out of her garden.

josh braga
Josh

Those lyrics, which I liked at the time, became the basis of a song I wrote a few weeks later.  The song had no title at the time, and no melody, but I grabbed a guitar one day with the idea to write music to those lyrics and came up with some cool Doobie Brothers sounding shit.  

I also remember my new girlfriend at the time was kind of bitching at me, telling me to put down the guitar so we could go somewhere.  I finished writing the music, and later, I worked on the song with my band at the time, Lazu Lie.  

My bandmate Josh came up with the title, which was Prince of Whales – kind of a joke, but I liked it and used it for the song.  Here’s how that song ended up sounding:

Conclusion

Over the years, I’ve tried both.  I’ll do the lyrics first, or the music.  It doesn’t matter.  It just depends how I’m feeling.  I like doing both, so I don’t really care.  

For you aspiring songwriters out there, I would suggest trying it one way or the other, and seeing what you like better.  You kind of need to have an accompanying instrument in order to write the music first.

 If you’re going to write music, what will you write it on?  There’s many ways to approach it.  

Here’s a video where I talk about this whole concept of songwriting and what comes first – music or lyrics.  If you have any comments, feel free to add them to this post or the Youtube video. Seeya!

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