What Comes First, Words or Music?


Markus Rill, Singer-SongwriterMarkus Rill is a singer-songwriter from Germany. He has just released his 8th album “My Rocket Ship” on Blue Rose Records and tours all over Europe and the US. Music at markusrill.bandcamp.com. More info at www.markusrill.net, in the blog at rocknrill.tumblr.com, www.facebook.com/markusrill, www.twitter.com/markusrill

One of the most commonly asked questions of any songwriter must be “What comes first when you write a song, words or music?”

The truth of the matter is, song ideas come in all kinds of ways: Sometimes a phrase you read or hear sparks an idea, sometimes there’s a subject matter you want to explore, other times there’s a melody or a chord progression that you feel is worth pursuing.

Another truth is: there are no rules about songwriting. Any way that leads to a good song and works for you is a good way.

Here’s the way that works best for me and maybe it’ll be worth a try for you: I always try to develop the lyric and the musical part of a song together. No matter what that first kernel of a song idea may be, a lyric snippet or a guitar lick, I never push it past its initial inspiration. It may be just a phrase I jot down, it may be a few lines or a melodic movement but if I don’t have the time or opportunity right this moment to pursue it past this initial spark, I write it down, sing or play it into my phone and revisit it when I have time to sit down with my guitar, pen & notepad.

I have tried to write lyrics to an existing musical composition and I have tried to come up with appropriate music for an existing lyric. Both of that can work and if it’s good enough for Dylan, I can’t really argue with it, can I?

However, when I work that way, I inevitably feel that the pre-existing part conditions the other part. In other words, if the melody is already written, it forces me to mold the lyric a certain way or the finished lyric demands a particular melodic development. It’s very hard to make that kind of work seem natural and effortless. And that is, after all, the goal: A song in which music & lyric supplement and support each other and are in perfect harmony.

Now, to me, perfect harmony is rarely achieved when words like “force”, “demand”, and “condition” come into play – which is why I like to develop the words & the melody together. I feel it gives me greater flexibility. I feel it makes it much easier for me to follow the song where it wants to go rather than exert influence as a songwriter. If at a certain point in the song, the lyric wants to move someplace, the music can support that development. Or else if I feel the music needs to change now, I can adapt the lyric. I can stop & turn on a dime and the other part (since it isn’t already finished) can easily follow. It may be that the melody leads the way in the segue from verse to chorus and later on in the song, it’s quite possible that the lyric suggests where the bridge needs to go musically. All I need to do then as the songwriter is to listen closely and read the lyric closely and that’ll eventually tell me how the song wants or needs to develop. If I’m able to do this well, the end result will be a song where words & music are equal, supportive partners rather than stuck in a relationship where one partner made the other bow to its will.

-Markus Rill

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  1. Although there are some stereotypes and commonly followed song structures and chords, it is often the songs that push the boundaries of what we know that really kick it off. There aren’t really rules, just guidelines – there’s no right or wrong in art, but there definitely is good and bad. I always start with a concept or theme that I get – often a musical motif or chord progression or a simple couplet and gradually build and merge ideas. Great post!

  2. Hi Peter,
    I certainly agree with you that it pays to delve deeply into songs and to study the art & craft of songwriting. And there’s certainly an unlimited number of things to learn about it. There are even rules I’ve made for myself, guidelines I try to follow in every song.
    However, I must admit there are songs that I love even though (perhaps because) they defy conventional wisdom and every rule I’ve imposed upon my own writing.
    So, honestly, I don’t know about rules in art.
    The sentence in question by the way didn’t aim at fundamental issues like these, it referred to the question of “words or music first”. I hope we agree that there’s no unbreakable rules about that part of the process.

  3. Hi Markus interesting post, I must take you up on one valid point

    There are rules to songwriting ,as in any art form it pays to learn the technicalities
    of the art. Once you know the rules, then you can break them.

    Study any Great Song any Genre you will find important similarity’s, if you can’t here orsee them you need to read more., and listen more.

  4. Markus, you touch on an important concept when you say, “…I feel it makes it much easier for me to follow the song where it wants to go rather than exert influence as a songwriter.”
    For me, that’s always been a spiritual/emotional issue and I’ve found that the time I invest in letting a song be born (and develop) produces more organic and heart-felt musical ideas than when I “work my craft”. That being said, the more I’ve worked on my craft, the more I recognize when genuine inspiration is present and the greater my creative muscles are sensitive to those sparks of genius which I get to transcribe as a songwriter.

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