It’s a good idea to come up with a song topic and perhaps a few snippets of lyric fairly early in the songwriting process. Having the topic gives you a direction for your musical mind, and every line of lyric you generate adds to your song’s character.
But since there is no such thing as one process that’s better than any other, it begs the question: can you leave lyrics to the very end? Can you write a song where everything else is pretty much in place, leaving the lyrics — even the song’s topic — as something that gets added as a final step?
The answer is yes, and for some songwriters (Paul Simon and John Legend, to name just two), that’s one of their preferred processes.
I start with the music and try to come up with musical ideas, then the melody, then the hook, and the lyrics come last. Some people start with the lyrics first because they know what they want to talk about and they just write a whole bunch of lyrical ideas, but for me, the music tells me what to talk about.
The music always precedes the words. The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts. Or incoherent thoughts. Rhythm plays a crucial part in the lyric-making as well. It’s like a puzzle to find the right words to express what the music is saying.
The clue as to how this happens comes from Paul Simon’s final thought on this: “…to find the right words to express what the music is saying.” There’s no denying that even if all you come up with for music, at least preliminarily, is a chord progression, that that progression carries with it a very clear sense of mood. And generating a mood is the first step in finding the topic and lyrics that are right for the song.
Using Instrumentals as a Model
If you’ve wondered about experimenting with writing a song where the lyrics come last, think of it this way: imagine that you’re writing an instrumental — a song that will have melody, chords and rhythms, but no lead vocal line.
If you start with the chords, you’ll probably simultaneously come up with a rhythmic treatment for those chords: the strumming or keyboard-based rhythmic pattern that feels right.
Once you’ve got chords and rhythm, mood is being automatically generated, and that mood will guide the melody-writing process. Try a melody moving upwards, then downwards, and see how it affects the mood. But don’t worry too much about trying to figure out at all what this song is about — at least not yet. Have the confidence to leave that to the final stage.
Don’t Forget the Melody
One of the biggest problems in this kind of quasi-instrumental writing, though, is forgetting to write a melody. So often, developing songwriters think of an instrumental as merely a backing chord progression with nothing much else.
In fact, the melody in a good instrumental is crucial to it being a memorable piece of music for the listener. Without a melody, it will sound like a song that’s forever trying to get started but never does.
Once you’ve got the basic elements of the song in place, where it’s working like a good instrumental, you should be getting a clear idea of not just the mood of what you’ve written, but what topic and lyrics would generate this music.
In fact, you may find that the lyrics will flow more easily when you leave them to the final stage. Don’t be surprised if you have to adjust the melody and/or the rhythms in order to make the lyrics work even better. Don’t think of anything you’ve written up to this point as being cast in stone.
The lyrics-last process allows you the benefit of hearing what the music-minus-words has to offer. It allows you to focus more keenly on mood, and the benefit will be that the lyrics will feel natural and even obvious, in the best sense of that word.
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