One thing I am often asked as someone who writes both music and lyrics is, “What do you do first? The music or the words?” And it’s not as easy a question to answer as perhaps it should be. Because it hinges on the very process of creating something, and this is a process which can sometimes be rather hidden from those of us who are involved in the process.
Sometimes it is very clearly the music that comes first. I create a melody (if I’m having a good day, the melody seems almost to create itself) and then I begin to play around with lyrics ideas. Usually though, I will have an idea what the song is going to be about from the very start – for example, if I’m writing a musical, I know that a song to do X and Y job is needed at a certain point, and I work from that first point.
Sometimes though, I need the lyrics first. I need them to give me a rhythm and a shape to the melody line. This is more likely to be the case if I’m not totally clear from the outset what the song is going to be part of. It might be a stand-alone song on an album of stand alone songs, so I don’t have an exterior plot to steer the song or to inform its content and feel, as would be the case in a musical.
The Craft of Lyric Writing
However, whichever comes first in the end is immaterial. What is terribly important to me is that I write lyrics which are singable, make sense, and are crafted well. It’s quite astounding to hear the number of songs which have words sung with the emphasis on the wrong syllable, simply because the lyrics don’t obey the metre of the song. So I’ve decided to share here a few of the lyrics of which I am perhaps most proud.
First, a verse from my musical based on Snow White…
Winter’s hand held all the land
In it’s cold embrace
All around, upon the ground,
Lay the deep’ning snow
Here the queen comes on the scene
Tears upon her face,
Sitting by the window, trying
In the cold to sew
Notice here that each of the odd numbered lines have a dual rhyme – Winter’s HAND held all the LAND. But then there is a further rhyming scheme, in that line 6 rhymes with line 2, and line 8 rhymes with line 4. This may seem overkill, but it’s what i mean when I say that lyric writing is a craft. It’s like writing poetry, saying as much as you can in just a few well chosen words, but making sure that those well chosen words are in a pleasing relationship with each other.
Here’s another set, from my musical about the Firebird…
I tell you, it’s a crime
To be toothless, past your prime
When your bones are weak
Your joints all creak
Almost all of the time
It’s hard, if truth be told
When you feel the creeping cold
When you’ve lost your bite
The light’s too bright
It’s no fun getting old
So here the rhyme scheme is A A B B A for the first five lines (A being the rhyming word at the end of each line.) This is then repeated, with two different rhyming sounds, in the second half of the verse. there’s a real sense of symmetry and pattern in what I do.
Recently I was asked by someone if I would write some music for their lyrics. However, I had to tell them that unless I could tweak their lyrics, I wouldn’t be able to do it. What rhymes were present were fairly forced rhymes, and as a whole the lyrics didn’t scan. This means that they didn’t obey their own rhythmic metre. I explained to the lyricist that not only do the rhyme schemes from verse one have to be reflected in verse two, but that ideally if line one of verse one has 9 syllables, then line one in each subsequent verse also needs nine syllables. Their response? “I didn’t know that”. I could see that from the lyrics they’d given me.
So I know I set out to explain what comes first when writing a song with lyrics, and have ended up talking about the craft of lyric writing as I perceive it. But what I hope this goes to show is that in my mind, the lyrics are just as important as the melody, and what makes up the music of the song. Just as much time should be spent on crafting the lyrics as in creating the music. Sometimes the words form themselves first. Sometimes, they fit themselves to a melody which has preceded them. But both speak for themselves.