For lyricists and songwriters alike, it's an age-old question: "Which comes first, the words or the music?" Grammy-nominated songwriter Harriet Schock shares her insights ...
or Music . . . That Is the Question
People like to debate which is more important, music or lyrics.
Lyricists love the story about Oscar Hammerstein's wife, Dorothy, overhearing Jerome Kern's wife insisting that Jerome Kern wrote "Ol' Man River" and Dorothy said, "No, your husband wrote bom, bom, bom, bom, (5-5-6-1) . . . MY husband wrote 'Ol' Man River.'"
Composers like to note that everyone can hum their melodies, and even they, themselves, need lyric sheets if they're asked to play at a party, because "no one remembers the words."
Having been a lyricist to composers and a composer to lyricists, I can argue both sides. And because I see the importance of both, I like to explain my view of it with the following analogy: Let's say for argument's sake you're a guy at a party. You see a beautiful girl and you start talking to her. In the course of the conversation, she says something insightful or unusual. She sparks your interest in her as a person, not just another pretty face. You want to get to know her better.
To me, this is the way it is with music and words. The music (the girl's physical beauty) is what first got the guy's attention. But if she'd been incredibly stupid or self-centered and talked about herself all the time and was not interested in him at all, he probably would have walked away after a while.
A good lyric that makes the listener feel something and/or learn something about himself is likely to get past first base. An illogical, self-indulgent, or banal lyric with a great melody or groove will not have the life that a great melody AND great lyric would have.
I hear students and other friends say "But listen to this lyric" and point to something on the radio that has all the "the"s and "a"s accented in the music and is held together more with political glue than a logical thread. But let's see how often that song would get cut if the producer or artist hadn't written it.
Back to our analogy, the most wonderful, brilliant girl at the party, who has no appealing physical presentation-either because she stands in the dark or she came in her house shoes and hot rollers-this girl has little chance of being discovered. Unfortunately, the same could be said of a brilliant lyric with a mundane melody or tedious track. People hear feel first, melody second and lyric last-or so it seems, in my experience.
So what does all this mean? And who cares, anyway? Well, I think it's important to face this fact, especially if you're a mediocre melody writer with a great gift for lyric. And if that is the case, there are a number of things you can do to improve the situation.
First of all, you can isolate the melody, before you fall irrationally in love with it by putting those golden lyrics with the notes. Listen to it, naked, in all its vulnerability. See if it makes the hair on your own neck stand up without the words. Many people who have studied with me have had to face this type of melodic scrutiny at least once a semester. So one does survive it. It's much easier to alter its shape, its rhythm, its harmonic structure in its raw form. Then, after you have a killer melody, it's worth putting words to. Secondly, you could collaborate with a really good composer.
If you write great melodies and think as long as you speak English, you're a lyricist, you may also be in for a rude awakening. Learning, honing, improving and perfecting the art of lyric writing (or the Craft as Sheila Davis so aptly writes) can be a lifelong journey.
Knowing what type of lyric to put with what type of track and melody, how to put it to the notes, how to shape the story, how to turn the knife of irony at the perfect time to affect the listener exactly the way you want to — these are things that raise the song to the level of real communication rather than merely throwing notes and words into the atmosphere.
Of course, some people write all the lyrics first. Provided this is done to a rhythm of some sort, it can work well for songwriters. It allows them to get the best possible lyric written without regard to the constraints of a melody. But it helps to know both approaches. One of my former students and now a successful songwriter for film and television, Barbara Jordan, came to my workshop having written lyric first, exclusively. She was horrified to hear she was going to write melody first. (The lyricists who study with me, like Ron Troutman, merely bring in lyrics.
I don't force everybody to write melodies, although I've helped a few lyricists become songwriters by doing just that.) Barbara discovered a whole new way of writing by concentrating on the melody before either writing the lyric or giving it to a lyricist. Now she has the choice of writing to a lyric or writing the melody first. She actually prefers writing melodies without words, now, and then brainstorming the lyric with someone else.
The main arguments for writing the lyric after the melody are: 1) You usually get a stronger melody when it's written unencumbered by a lyric; 2) a great melody will force a lyric to be streamlined and condensed; and 3) when the lyricist dictates the rhythm of the melody, he or she is actually doing the composer's work, and frequently the results are not very musical. (I know Elton and Bernie wrote this way, but Bernie Taupin also writes music, so he no doubt heard a rhythm in his head when he was writing the lyric.)
Once the melody and track are powerful on their own, then comes the challenge of putting words to it that will bring home the emotional impact the music is meant to have. In country songs, the lyric carries more than 50% of the weight in most cases. But in all genres, the lyric has the task of fulfilling the promise of the music. And it can be the difference between a 5-minute conversation, as in our previous analogy, or a marriage that lasts a lifetime.
So the debate goes on, like the battle of the sexes. Perhaps they're both out of date. What really matters is that both elements emerge strong and memorable. I think they can help each other get there.
© Harriet Schock
This article is reprinted with the kind permission of its author, Harriet Schock, a multi-platinum songwriter/recording artist and the author of Becoming Remarkable. As well as performing worldwide, she speaks, teaches, consults and teaches a correspondence course in songwriting to writers all over the world. For further information about her book, CDs, concerts, correspondence courses, classes or consultation, visit her website at: HarrietSchock.com
Here's Another Great Tip for Song Lyricists! Check out the Lyrics Only section of the