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#1
Old 03-27-2004, 05:52 AM
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do most songwiters start with the lyrics or tune first?

I know a lot of song writers such as Elton John seem to start with the lyrics first (by Taupin) and then compose a tune around it. Is this normal? It seems to me as a non musician the hardest part is a good tune rather than the lyrics.

I also heard way back that David Bowie used to compose his lyrics by writing lots of random phrases on scraps of papers and picking them up at in any order. It would certainly account for the fact that I don't understand any of his songs from the 70's.
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#2
Old 03-27-2004, 06:17 AM
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I think you'll find it depends a lot on the particular artist and what their strengths are. Personally, I have no trouble coming up with some nice music, but I can't write lyrics for shit. So I have a lot of pieces of wordless music floating around in my head. When the lyrics do come, they come last (they're a lot like nice guys ).

If I do write the words first, it's normally only one verse/chorus, the second and third verses come later and tend to be forced.

You may find that someone who is a poet who happens to be a musician as well, will tend to write the other way, with the words preceding the music. I don't know, maybe there're some posters here who work that way and can shed some light.

I remember reading an interview with Roger Waters (Pink Floyd). He said that, for Pink Floyd, the music either comes first or the lyric and music come together at the same time. The interview was specifically about their album Wish You Were Here, and the song Wish You Were Here was given as an example of one of the few songs where the lyric came first.

Re David Bowie: It's not uncommon for artists to use nonsense phrases to make up some or all of the lyrics. Sometimes a nonsense phrase might be put in place until a better lyric is written, but ends up staying in. The Beatles have done this a bit I believe.

Ultimately, I don't think there is any one way that people work, it just depends on the individual.
#3
Old 03-27-2004, 08:10 AM
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The great popular songwriter Sammy Cahn had the best answer. Someone once asked him which came first, the words or the tune, and he said, "Neither - the contract."

There's no real answer to the OP. Different songwriters work in different ways, and often the song is a collaboration between a words guy and a music guy working together.

It's a little misleading to refer to eccentric and not very talented examples like Bowie. He is many things to many people, but not a lyricist. Chopping up random phrases is not an artistic choice, it's just one artless way of overcoming a creative deficiency.

It has always seemed to me that the words/lyrics are massively easier to write than the music. I am staggered that the two are ever considered remotely equivalent tasks, and in any words/music partnership I'm amazed than anyone feels the lyrics guy is doing anything more than about 10% of the work. Perhaps this is because I personally find it very easy to write song lyrics in more or less any style in the popular music range, and indeed there's a sample of my scribbles on my website. I can make up music as well, but it takes me forever to do so and I choose to spend my time doing other things. So the lyrics are just sitting there waiting to be used.
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#4
Old 03-27-2004, 10:05 AM
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That's the best answer you're going to find. It depends on the music. Generally, there's three approaches to songwriting I've seen (or even used in my feeble attempts): 1) Lyric first, 2) Song first, 3) Both at the same time. Personally, I've seen approaches 2&3 used more often than 1, but the bands I've played it put more emphasis on music than lyrics.

I find it extremely difficult to write a lyric w/o at least having a sketch of a song in the background. Sometimes a lyric will suggest a melody or a rhythm, which then suggests a structure of a song. Then again, sometimes a chord progression will suggest a melody and even a lyric. It's all very organic. I suppose some songwriters may have a music-first or lyric first approach, but I suspect for most it's a combination of the two.
#5
Old 03-27-2004, 02:07 PM
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This is about music, so I'll move the thread to Cafe Society.

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#6
Old 03-27-2004, 02:08 PM
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My songs come to me in stages.

I first get the hook – one line (or a few) that are the catchy essence of the song. Both lyrics and music for that hook pop up in my head at the same time.

I then come up with the more music. This also “just comes to me.”

The most labor intensive part is completing the lyrics -- trying to convey the full meaning, make it rhyme, make it clear.

And then there is the “aging” process – singing it to myself over and over, often changing parts until it all sticks.
#7
Old 03-27-2004, 02:42 PM
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In the wonderful documentary, Two Rooms, Elton John re-enacts the composition process of Tiny Dancer. He browses a stack of Bernie Taupin's lyrics until he finds something he likes, and then he composes the music. He talks about how he had to teach Bernie the concept of strict musical meter.
#8
Old 03-27-2004, 03:12 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Libertarian
In the wonderful documentary, Two Rooms, Elton John re-enacts the composition process of Tiny Dancer. He browses a stack of Bernie Taupin's lyrics until he finds something he likes, and then he composes the music. He talks about how he had to teach Bernie the concept of strict musical meter.

I have serious difficulty coming up with lyrics, or a singable melody, and I tend to structure tunes in a way that is not very conducive to singing. Yesterday, however, I forced myself to come up with a tune for singin'...waiting for someone else to come up with lyrics and/or a melody.

if one of you is the sort who has the opposite problem, lyrics or melodies come easy, but the rest is tough, take a listen and let me know.

http://themunky.com/UnfTune.mp3
#9
Old 03-27-2004, 04:06 PM
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Sniffs_Markers says "either", but she usually has a concept first (like a theme). She says if she doesn't have a concept of any kind but just sits down to write as a matter of disciplined practise, she'll usually get a melody first.

Other times it just "comes to her" (like a jazz tune on her last album -- she just started singing in the shower, lyrics and all).
#10
Old 03-27-2004, 04:24 PM
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I write poetry, so lyrics always come first. My melodies tend to be pretty pedestrian, so I tend to avoid writing them.
#11
Old 03-27-2004, 04:30 PM
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In an interview, Billy Joel said he subscribes to the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards?) theory that the phenomes of the words are dictated by the melody line. Take the song "Honky Tonk Women," with the very long multi-measure note in the chorus:

Hooooo-ooooo-ooooooo-ooonky tonk women,
Give me, give me, give me, the honky tonk blues.

According to the theory—and because Billy writes the music first—you couldn't put a word like "girl" in that melody, because you're holding the wrong kind of sound:

Girrrrrrr-rrrrrr-rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-rrrrrrlll...

It doesn't ring. Or the name "Fred." I'm sure you get the idea.

Still, I have written music in all kinds of ways, with the help of my brother (who likes to scribble together lyrics now and again). Often this will be in the form of partial lyrics that my brother hands me. I'll knock together the first verse and chorus (in full arrangement) on a MIDI keyboard and let him listen to the "sound" that I imagined. After having heard the "sound" of the song and the meter I am using for his first verse, he goes away and writes more lyrics that fit the rhythm and tone.

Sometimes I will write a musical hook but have no lyrical direction to it. I'll send him the music and let him fiddle with it. The sound of the piece sometimes inspires.

Sometimes I write some lyrics myself and put them to music. Or I'll write lyrics and give them to him to put together a chord progression and a few snatches of the melody. I'll take it back and work up the arrangement ('cos I'm the one with the keyboards).

Finally, I sometimes write the first verse and chorus and hand them to my brother and ask him if he can think of additional lyrics to fill the thing out.

In short, there's no one way, but since we often write as a team, it's hard to make generalizations about other artists, especially solo act singer-songwriters.
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#12
Old 03-27-2004, 04:37 PM
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I can't write lyrics to save my life, so I come up with the music first. I've been working on a personal project for a few years now, to create brand new music for old hymns. So I'll bang around on a guitar until I come up with something I like, and then flip through old hymnals until I come across some lyrics that will neatly fit the music I've written. Put them together, and *bang* I've got a song.

I try to find lyrics that are in the public domain. I also use hymns that I've never heard before, so that my melody is not influenced by the original.
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#13
Old 03-29-2004, 03:02 AM
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thanks for the replies. I like fiddling around with chord sequences on the guitar and reckon I could write some crappy lyrics - but it is intersting to see how other people do it
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#14
Old 03-29-2004, 08:11 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ianzin
I am staggered that the two are ever considered remotely equivalent tasks, and in any words/music partnership I'm amazed than anyone feels the lyrics guy is doing anything more than about 10% of the work.
I am staggered you would make this statement, especially since you seem to be a songwriter!
Simple-minded or cliched lyrics are a breeze to come up with. Clever or thought-provoking ones can be at least as much work as hitting on a winning melody.

10% of the work, that's funny.
#15
Old 03-29-2004, 10:41 AM
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It's been a while since I wrote anything but my method used to be:

Write lyrics/ideas at any old time - whenever they came to me - after a while have a honking great pile of potential lyrics.

Sit down with the geetar and pick something out of the pile. Wail away making stuff up until something sticks. If the tune's good but is a bad match with the words then look through the pile for something more suitable. I can (or at least could) improvise a tune, but not words.

I've also been in bands where most of the material was improvised by the whole band, maybe starting with a couple of basic ideas (riffs/chord sequences). The singer (not me) was expected to come up with the words.

I prefer my solo efforts.
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