Lyrics, Melody or Chords: Which Comes First?

The question of “Which came first – the lyrics or the music” is almost as ubiquitous as the whole chicken/egg debate. It’s a question that songwriters are often asked, and there really does not seem to be a consensus either way.

Some songwriters swear by starting with the music, whilst others need to have some words before any musical inspiration comes their way.

For another group, the words and the music tend to come at the same time, and it can be difficult to marry up disparate musical and lyrical ideas if they arise separately.

For the rest of us, every song is different, and the first sign of life could be anything from a rhyming couplet, a bass line, a synth melody or a little rhythmic figure on a pair of egg shakers.

But if you have some words, or a melody, or some chords, where do you go next? Below I’ve put together a few brief guidelines to help you out.

I’ve got some words…

Brilliant! Words are wonderful creatures. Do you have an entire song or just part of one? If you’ve only got part of one, that’s fine. It can help to move onto the music before writing any more, as the musical direction might guide and inspire your next steps lyrically.

The rhythm of the words is important. Say the words out loud and try and work out where the emphasis should be, and when the pitch of your speech rises or falls. This will help you to fit a melody to them.

A good next step could be a chord progression that fits the lengths of the lines and sections that you have written. The chords will also help you to pin down your melody. Are there any words or lines that you would like to emphasise for emotional effect? If so, that’s a great opportunity to add a surprising or dramatic chord change.

I’ve got a melody…

It can be tricky to start with a melody, but strong melodies that stand on their own are rare beasts indeed, so don’t let it go!

Fitting words around an existing melody with no context can be tough, as there are so many unanswered questions. What is the song about? Who is singing it and what kind of tone of voice are you going to use? Also, it can be very restrictive; the syllables, emphasis and pattern of the words have to fit the melody exactly, or it could sound fairly stilted and awkward.

Therefore, it might be a good idea to use your catchy and interesting melody as the basis for a chord progression. If words that fit comfortably into it are not forthcoming, perhaps it could be an instrumental theme that you use within the song. You could always use a variant of this theme, or borrow elements of it, when you have some lyrics, freeing you up to write words outside of the strict melodic structure, but within the feel and style that you have established with the music.

I’ve got a chord progression…

If you’ve come up with a chord progression that’s worth remembering, this can be an excellent basis for a song. Many of us have written songs by sitting playing chords on a guitar or piano and then singing over them in a stream of consciousness type fashion. The complexity of the human brain means that the results can be surprisingly pleasant… why not give it a go?

Alternatively, you could look through your old notebooks and try singing along to the chord progression with any lyrical scraps you have written down in the past. You never know, the chords you are playing might capture the mood of the words, or give them colour that they never previously had.

Finally, a chord progression is an excellent starting point for a melody. Remember, your melody doesn’t have to be made up purely of notes that are within the chords you’re playing. Passing notes should be used liberally to make things flow. And don’t be afraid to embellish your chords to expand your melodic options… there’s nothing quite like a well-placed Suspended 2nd, a 9th or a Major 7th to add interest and depth to a song.

If you can’t get any further…

Sometimes, you have some words, or some chords, or a melody, but you can’t get a convincing song out of it. Don’t be discouraged if this happens – it’s probably not worth trying to force matters. Just record or write down what you’ve got, and store it away for a rainy day. Viewed with fresh eyes, your creative snippets could someday develop into something new and amazing.