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  • Which came first, the lyrics or the melody?

    OK, songbirds. Do you tend to start with lyrics or melody, or do work on them together?

    I tend to start with a hook, a line or some other lyric fragment and work from there. My notebook is filled with one- or two-line scribbles. But usually, by the time I've got a verse or chorus roughed out, I find myself starting to hum a melody and the tasks merge.

    It's more difficult for me to start with a melody and add lyrics.

    Curious how other folks approach this?


    • David,

       It pleases me that you started this "egg or the hen' conversation.  This exploration of technique interests me.

      If I may misquote, many roads lead to Rome.  

      For me the verbal and instrumental processes are very separate. I think the brain is doing very different things here.

      I often find the need to express a catchy idea or emotion that is moving me and generally that comes first in the form of words as I tend to think poetically. The cadence and choice of wording often comes all or mostly at once and then is fine tuned until it feels just right or at least until I feel as though I have most of  it off my chest for the time being.  Sometimes the fine tuning comes at a much later date. The muse has to be captured and inked to paper while the feeling is strong before it is lost.  It is like a therapy, important ideas are saved and I feel better once I have captured the concept, if only in a rough draft.  If it is still incomplete, the work might lay dormant in a notebook for a long time.  Sometimes when reading a forgotten, incomplete work from the past, I find some fresh ideas that are just right to resolve the work. It is hard to describe but I know when I have completed what I wanted to say or do with the words. I can feel when it is finished or not finished, just like the last brush stroke of a painter.

      Then, for me, the  melody and structure are shaped to fit the tone of the idea which is being expressed and comes after that has been resolved .  Happy sad angry fast slow whimsical, degree of energy...

      Instrumental pieces are a different process and discussion. 
    • WesWes
      edited April 2014
      I suppose that a professional or commercial writer who consistently produces a lot of work must be disciplined.  To consistently produce a lot of work and quality work, you must have  a plan or guideline defining the parameters of each song and then you fill up the inside.

      The idea here is the shotgun effect, crank out enough songs and a few should stand out as keepers.

      I know this sounds like a recipe for a lot of contrived crappola. The theory here is that once momentum is built and the creative juices start flowing, good things can happen that could not be seen before. 
      The creative process is what we want to get rolling. I am of course discussing a rational and deliberate way to get the ball rolling without the use of any particular beverage or copious quantities of native medicines.

      Song blueprint-

      How long will it be
      In what style ( here, bluegrass of course!)
      What's the hook( lyric, instrumental riff, or other gimmick)

      Chime in if you have a thought people...I'm just talkin' here.
    • I'm not a very disciplined songwriter, Wes. Part of it, I think, is that I write journalism every day, at my day job and here at Bluegrass Today. So it has helped to turn to co-writing. It forces me to make an appointment and commit to spending a couple of hours writing. It also compels me to spend some time with my notebooks, pulling together potential lyric fragments/hooks or snatches of melody so that I'm ready to contribute when the session starts. I almost never worry about the length of a song until I'm far into the process.
    • I conducted a songwriting workshop yesterday (May 10) with Wayne Taylor and one of my co-writers, Chris Dockins at the Loudoun Bluegrass Festival. Interesting questions about matching lyrics and melody, pitching songs for others to record and co-writing. I invited workshop participants to check in here and maybe we can get a rolling dialog going. Spread the word!
    • edited May 2014
      I make song idea notes in a notebook as well. Often a line or two, or just a topic idea.  If I'm working on a certain type of song, I tend to sing and play other songs of that type by other songwriters, or read poetry of that same type. In college art classes, one professor called this creating a visual file. For me it's a form of feeding my muse. :-)  Recently songs have come to me most often in the morning when I wake.  I jot down the lines that come to me, and hum along as I go, then figure out chords on guitar most usually, noting them as well, then record the melody on my phone.  Sometimes I record the melody on my phone before fetching the guitar to get the chords down.  :-)  Often the chorus comes first, then I work out the verses later, sometimes the same morning, sometimes later in the day or a different day.  Tweaking takes weeks, but usually the tweaks aren't too big.  So that's the basic process for me.  I can't imagine working with a preset form, but I've been writing a couple songs a week for the past several months, and there's a good variety of formats, styles, and moods represented nonetheless.
    • Interesting concept, Liza Jane, building the file. I take the opposite approach. When I'm writing, I'm a musical hermit. I don't listen to any music except what's in my head.
    • edited July 2015
      Different people come at songwriting different ways; to me, that is one of the things that makes for such great diversity and creativity. But I would posit that with most songwriting -- particularly bluegrass -- you have to start with a compelling story. It is what Bill Monroe referred to as "true life" songs. (Monroe may have been the original "singer-songwriter"....) From there, it is finding an effective way of telling the story. Whatever you do, good editing is essential. All good art involves editing, and songwriting is no exception. I've heard plenty of so-so 5-minute songs that would've been great 3-minute songs.

      As far as listening to other music while you're in a writing mood, I've known people who have to listen to other stuff to get inspired, but I -- like David -- avoid listening to music when I'm writing. I fear whatever I'm listening to might creep into what I'm writing, even subconsciously.
    • I do it the hardest way.......melody and lyrics at the same time. I usually have an idea for a song, then as I start to write out the words, they seem to dictate the melody. I guess that's why I've never made it rich as a song writer!!! lol! Come to think of it, I've never made it rich as a performer either!!! :neutral:
    • It's great when the words and melody come at the same time, Lynwood. But if I waited for that to happen, I'd have about three songs to my name so far!
    • While I fancy myself a writer of fiction and not of song lyrics, I have to say that I start with a melody. If words find their way to my instrumental pieces, all the more better! lol

      I've been playing an instrument of some sort since I was 11 (I've been creeping up on 50 for a few years now) and I only started appreciating the actual composing of stories much much later in life, so there's that correlation too I suppose. I've written a handful of short stories, as well as a novella (all unpublished)...and while I've composed hundreds of song fragments, with interesting riffs/hooks, lots with awesome choruses and bridges, only 1 or 2 of them have lyrics.
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