As a private instructor and songwriting coach, I’ve received a lot of the same types of questions from students over the years when it comes to writing songs. One of the most commonly occurring questions looks something along the lines of: “Hey Aaron, when you’re writing songs, do you start with the lyrics? Or does the music come first?”
I love this question and always get excited when a client/student brings this up but the fact of the matter is that there is no one simple answer. As both an artist and an active freelancer, I work in different types of musical genres, all for very different reasons, so the short answer I tend to give is: “It depends.“
In this article, I’m going to share with you my perspective on how I go about writing lyrics and melodies and which one comes first for me in each genre I work in. My hope is you can walk away with a fresh perspective and some simple strategies to test out with your own writing. Let’s dig in.
About the author
So, about that question…
As I mentioned above, when it comes to writing lyrics and music, things can vary greatly as far as which one comes first in the process.
For me personally, there are many variables that contribute to a specific outcome depending on the genre I’m working in but there are some clear patterns that I’ve noticed in my own writing over the years. Let’s have a look.
If I’m working on a metal tune, I know right off the bat from just being a common fan that this genre is very guitar and drum centric, so the guitar riff is going to be the primary focus from a writing standpoint. Even if the riff itself doesn’t wind up, being the song’s main hook, I almost always start here, and the rest of the song is built around it.
Typically when I’m working on my own music in this genre, there is less of a focus on lyrics initially for this very reason. That’s not to say that I don’t put a great deal of effort into writing lyrics that are meaningful to me but they are almost always after the music has been written.
If I’m working in a genre like singer-songwriter, I know that the song’s message as well as the vocals will get center stage. In this particular instance, starting from a “lyrics-first” approach can often help dictate how the rest of the song is going to unfold.
The same can be said for other contemporary genres like country, hip-hop etc. Basically anything where there’s an emphasis on descriptive storytelling.
If I’m working within more ambient and experimental genres, I’ll often adopt a “melody-first” approach before a single word is written which is similar to how I work in the aforementioned guitar-based genres but with some slight differences.
For example, if I’m booked to do a vocal gig and the client wants both melody and lyrics written, I will always start with the melody and then follow the steps I talk about in my previous article on how to write powerful lyrics for your music.
That all being said, there are always exceptions to this approach and I never like to adhere to one particular way of doing this as it keeps things fresh for me as a writer.
The 3 different approaches
With that in mind, I’d like to share with you a few different perspectives that I think will be helpful to you wether if you’re a beginner songwriter just starting out or if you’re a seasoned pro but are looking for a change in perspective. Let’s dive in.
1. Writing melodies to lyrics
When working with songwriters, the most common questions I get is “I have a ton of lyrics written. How do I write melodies to them?”
I think it’s important to start with recognizing that words unto themselves are in fact, musical. They each have their own rhythm and can even help dictate the length and duration of an assigned note.
As an exercise, I suggest trying this out:
- Pick your song key whatever it’s going to be.
- Spell out the scale that’s associated with the key of your song. For example: A song in C major would have the corresponding scale of C-D-E-F- G-A-B-C.
- Pick a lyric up to four syllables in length. For example, let’s use a line that touches on one of my favorite subject matter: “I like pancakes.” (I – like – pan – cakes).
- Now pick up to four notes out of the C major scale. Experiment with note choice, use your ear and ultimately find something that sounds good to you.
For example, here’s a melody I came up with after some experimenting. C-E-C-D.
Notice that I didn’t use four completely different notes. I wound up using that “C” as a base for the “E” and “D” to revolve around which creates some nice back and forth to my ear.
- Repeat this process with the rest of your lyrics if need be or until you start to get in the zone.
You can see this process in action by checking out this three-minute video:
2. Writing lyrics to melodies
This I already touched on a bit in my previous article, where I talk about how to write lyrics for your music in seven steps. So, be sure to check it out.
3. My approach for guitar-based genres
As mentioned up above, when it comes to rock or metal, it is all about the almighty riff, and seeing how riff writing is literally my favorite thing to do, I’ve discovered a number of habits I seem to gravitate towards, but for the sake of today’s article, I’ll share one that you should get plenty of mileage out of.
Creating a call and response melody.
Whenever I come up with an idea on the guitar, I always wind up exploring it in a myriad of different ways just to see how much juice I can get out of the idea be it a lick, a melody, motif, whatever you want to call it.
If it’s a riff, I’ll usually start by figuring out what I like to call a “call and response” riff. What this is essentially is two separate riffs that sound similar but one note at the end of one riff creates tension while the last note of other riff resolves the tension.
Here’s an example of a call and response type of riff in C# Mixolydian. I’m using notes taken from the F# Major scale.
Riff A: F – F# – G# – G#
Riff B: A# – F# – A# – G#
Riff C: G# – C# – B – A#
Riff D: D# – B – D# – C#
Let’s take a look at riff C and riff D in particular.
Riff C: G# – C# – B – A#
The fourth note in riff C leaves things feeling tense.
Riff D: D#-B-D#-C#
The fourth note in riff D resolves the tension.
By the way, to hear these examples, check them out at the following video and skip to the 8:25 time stamp.
Seeing as I already have my drums and bass set up with some rough ideas, I was able to crank out this melody quickly simply by making specific choices and jamming on them.
The end result is a melody with notes that sustain themselves in a manor that, to me, sounds like something a singer would do. This automatically gets me thinking about what words might come to mind as I listen back.
Thanks for reading! I love getting questions like this and would love to continue the conversation, so I just want to know what do you typically start with? Are you a “lyrics-first” writer? Or is the music more of your focus like me?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so drop a comment and let me know!