What Comes First, the Lyric or the Melody?
This is probably the most-asked question I get as a songwriter. And there are a million answers to it.
The truth is, on any given day I actually have no idea how the next song is going to present itself. Songwriting feels a bit like digging for dinosaur skeletons in the sand…you feel around until you find a little piece of something interesting, and then you follow where it leads until you uncover what the whole thing is. Sometimes the first bone you grab ahold of is a lyrical phrase that becomes the title or the first line of the song. Sometimes it’s a guitar groove that becomes the song’s foundation. It might be a melody that feels like the beginning of a verse or chorus, or it could even just be a general concept you want to write about that doesn’t have any specific words or melodies yet.
The trick is really just brainstorming. Fearless, shameless, dare-to-suck brainstorming...and then looking for clues among the random things that come out. Here are some of the ways I’ve done this in the past…
I’ve found potential song titles on billboard signs, in magazine ads, in TV dialogue, in coffee shop conversations, and even buried in the verses of other songs. (For example my song, “Angelina” was inspired by the face of a missing girl on a poster.)
I’ve taken the first word that popped into my head and chased it to see where it leads. (One day I sat in the writing room, looked down at my shirt and saw crumbs on it from the granola bar I had eaten in a rush on the way to the office. I said “Crumbs? Crumbs. Crumbs crumble…crumbling crumbling…tumbling tumbling…what crumbles? What tumbles? Jericho! The walls of Jericho crumbled and tumbled.” And we had our song title: “Jericho”, which became about the scary, wonderful process of a lover taking your defenses down.)
I’ve done the same thing with melodies: I’ll open my mouth and sing a melody without thinking at all, just to see what comes out. Sometimes it’s a terrible tone-deaf sound…but sometimes it’s magic. I’ll put my hands on a guitar or a piano keyboard and make noise…just to see if there’s anything cool in the mess I make. Then I’ll go even further and try putting words to the melody I’m spitting out…just make sounds with words and see if they makes sense at all.
If I'm starting with a cool little word or phrase that sparks my interest, I'll play my instrument and sing to see if anything else comes out that seems to fit with it. Or maybe I’ll just sit and think of whether it inspires a picture of a place or situation in my mind that I can describe. When l look at the phrase from all different angles in my mind, sometimes it even becomes a metaphor for something else. (That’s what “Get on the Train” did, which started from the title repeating over and over rhythmically in my head without any particular meaning until my cowriter helped me find the metaphor in it.)
Sometimes my cowriters and I bust our brains for 15 minutes thinking of as many creative rhymes as possible for our word or phrase. For example, today we started with the phrase “no problemo” and then brainstormed these rhymes:
-It’s all bueno
-Pour your worries down the draino
-Sick of the same old same old
-Turn your dollars into pesos
-Tell your troubles hasta luego
…and from there, we were able to find a common theme in a lot of the phrases, deciphering the song’s message from that, and piecing it together into something that made sense.
There are other ways too…
You can listen to the instrumental introduction of a random song you’ve never heard, turn it off before the first line and immediately sing what you think it’s going to say. (I guarantee what you end up with will be completely different from the original once you go back to listen afterwards.)
You can tell the story of an object that's sitting right in front of you. (Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “This Shirt” is a great example of a song that does that beautifully.)
You can think of a concept that inspires you, then sing what you want to say about it…or relate it metaphorically to love, loss, or life in general. (My song “Arizona Rain” was inspired by a biology lecture in college when my professor described how the desert springs to life and turns green for a short time after a rare heavy rain, and I related that to how it feels to be loved when you’re lonely.)
You can build a 4-bar or 8-bar chord progression with track-building software, play it on a repeating loop, and sing to it until something cool comes out.
Basically, it’s all just a big ol’ pit of sand that you just start digging away at however you can. But in the end, if you try it enough times, you’ll start to feel more confident that ideas will actually reveal themselves to you when you trust and tap into your subconscious and the little clues and signals around you. So whether the first bone you find is a piece of a melody or a lyrical phrase, you’ll hone your ability to follow the lines of it until you dig the whole dinosaur out. And then - voila - you have a song!
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