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What comes first– the music or the lyrics?

January 3, 2011

Bryan Adams keeps a journal of lyrics.

On behalf of the Songwriters Association of CanadaHappy New Year! To kick off the new year, we thought we’d start a discussion to get your creative juices flowing.

Do you begin with music or lyrics when songwriting? The song “Yesterday,” by The Beatles began as a melody in Paul McCartney’s dreams.  It  then became “Scrambled Eggs,” before reaching it’s finished form.

For some, coming up with a melody is easier than the lyrics and vice versa for others.  We interviewed some esteemed Canadian songwriters and discovered there is no rule, only preferences.  Join the conversation by adding your preference below.

Bryan Adams: Usually it’s chorus or a verse idea. i keep a journal of lyrics which i go to occasionally when I’m stuck. sometimes there is a line in there that can inspire something, generally it’s from jamming, just jam a few cords and sing something over it…it seems to work for me.

Joan Besen: Different every time.

Blair Packham: Ideally, both at once. Failing that, lyrics first. I WISH the music came first and then brilliant lyrics followed but it doesn’t work that way for me.

Greg Stephens: Usually, the music.

Marc Jordan: Music.

Joel Plaskett: A little bit of both.  Usually a phrase and melody appear at the same time and I get rolling from there.

Ron Hynes: For me it’s almost always the lyric. Sometimes I’ll get both at the same time but mostly It’s lyric and then the struggle to find the melody.

Jim Vallance: For me, the music comes first, although occasionally I’ll start with a fragment of lyric, like a title or phrase.

Emm Gryner: Music slightly before the lyrics. or all at once!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 4:49 pm

    Melodies come to mind more frequently than lyrics. However, the most catchy stuff comes into mind when both ideas hit me at the same time… this usually happens once in a blue moon in my sleep believe it or not.

  2. January 5, 2011 11:48 pm

    Closest I come to is Brian Adams comment- taking stock, I found my last 6 songs all originated with a chorus, or hook that worked into a chorus. The rest always seems to come easier after that.

  3. January 6, 2011 12:13 pm

    Closest I come to is Bryan Adams comment- taking stock, I found my last 6 songs all originated with a chorus, or hook that worked into a chorus. The rest always seems to come easier after that.

  4. January 8, 2011 6:29 pm

    I start by strummin’ & mumblin’ … then try to make some sence of the mumblin’ while I’m strummin’. Within about 2 days, usually a song is developed.

  5. L.. Roly Jobin. permalink
    January 10, 2011 6:00 pm

    Always, for me, the melody . . . but, at the same moment…the title of that song. The lyrics follow eventually, but the title is born with the melody and stays, unchanged, with that melody. Lauriate

  6. January 10, 2011 7:16 pm

    I’m the “shot in the dark” at 3:00 a.m. type -lyrics and music happen simultaneously! Usually the first verse and chorus “come together”, then the second and 3rd verses are progressively more work. The songs that are too much work, ( I know the old adage is that songs are supposed to be “more perspiration than inspiration”), but I’m of the “don’t sweat the small stuff” ilk, and the songs I belabor too much…stink!! Then there’s the boxes of lyrics of forgotten music…since my cassette recorder died, I don’t have a viable way of recording new songs!! (I’ve done 3 albums of my songs)

  7. Terry Banks permalink
    January 11, 2011 8:46 am

    What came first, the chicken or the egg? For me, it works both ways, sometimes it’s a lyric or a phrase that gets the old grey matter churning. Other times, it’s a lick or a chord progression. I tend to let the song write itself for the most part and then I just kind of guide it along. I have had the fortune of writing both pretth much simaltaneously from time to time, as music and lyrics formed almost instatnly upon inspiration! But those are few and far between … I started out mostly writing lyrics, before I could play an actual “tuned” instrument (I was a drummer suffering from “Neil Peart” syndrome – a drummer who wrote lyrics) and once I started playing guitar and writing my own music, then the songwriting took shape. My first lyrics ever written were in 1978 at 17 years of age, a song called “Thinking Of You (And the Good Old Days)” which sat in my head, and type written on a yellowed old piece of vellum, for 32 years before I finally put music to it! I must admit, I’m pretty proud of that song …

  8. March 3, 2011 12:20 pm

    For me its usually one line of the song that comes and then from there i build the melody and the music. After finishing the music, I make up the rest of the words.
    Other times, the music comes first.

  9. Netvik permalink
    March 6, 2011 5:56 am

    I am not professional. I just have write songs less then two years. My deep belief music, music and music. When i just hear the beginning i already know about what it is. My opinion

  10. Suzanne Pasternak permalink
    March 19, 2011 7:01 pm

    You don’t find the subject, the subject finds you. Then it’s a toss as to which comes first, music or lyrics.

  11. Calvin Fletcher permalink
    July 11, 2012 4:58 pm

    Usually, the lyrics come first. I mean I’ve been playing piano and guitar for years, a lot longer than I have been writing lyrics, but I want to say or convey something in my songs. And I believe that I am a good enough musician to be able to write music that perfectly complements my lyrics. Writing sad music to fit sad lyrics is a lot more intimate than writing sad lyrics to accompany music. It is almost as if you’re writing words to just for the sake of writing words. However, there are times, usually when I improvise on piano, which is my main instrument, where I feel something click in my music. The music says something to me. And I want to explore it, and I write lyrics in an attempt to help convey what the music is trying to say. It’s a pleasant musician’s moment, but if I wanted to sit down and write a song, it’s usually lyrics first.

  12. Jim Marshall permalink
    June 20, 2013 6:51 pm

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Turns out the chicken is just an eggs way of making another egg. And so it is with music! The melody will suggest lyrics just as the lyrics will imply melody.

  13. February 8, 2015 3:35 am

    Melodies song and the lyrics. Thanks for sharing with us.Keep going.

  14. Bri permalink
    February 20, 2015 11:22 pm

    For me, I write the lyrics first, then sit down with my guitar and start fiddling around till I find a chord progression I like, then just play around and eventually the melody falls into place

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