The age-old question: Music or lyrics first?


I understand the fascination with how songwriters write their songs. I’m fascinated too!

For many years I wrote “song seeds.” My initial idea would come to me as a lyric and a melody already tied together in my brain. These were tiny snippets of songs, some of them just three to four words and notes. I usually work incrementally—a few more notes, a few more lyrics, and back and forth. Only two or three times in my 16 years of songwriting have I ever finished a complete melody or complete lyric without touching the other. I usually stay at a piano or guitar while I work through my songs piece-by-piece, letting the chords go wherever I found interesting.

Prior to my most recent album, I always wrote songs with an instrument. I was in a pre-production session with my producer and he kept commenting that the songs I wrote on piano kept skewing toward a pop/jazz style and the songs I wrote on guitar were leaning more towards Americana—the stylistic direction we were going for on the project. I immediately guessed the source of the problem.

I was a much weaker guitar player, and this was actually helping my style as I was trying to craft a particular type of song. Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to be better at an instrument to write songs?

What I discovered is that I was letting my chord changes dictate the shapes of my melodies. My melodies were following these random chord changes that I was throwing out as I composed, and I was neglecting to let the melody naturally go where it wanted to go. I wrote better songs on guitar because I could play far fewer chords on the guitar than I could on the piano. With my fancy, complicated chord changes out of the way, I wrote stronger melodies. Because of this revelation, I stopped writing with an instrument altogether. I was still putting chords to my music, but after the melody and lyrics were finished.

So, I decided this was my new method. Craft the shape of the melody (no chords) and then place the lyrics in piece-by-piece.

Now enters Michael Farren. I had the privilege of writing with Michael on one of the last days of a recent Nashville trip for the purpose of co-writing songs with many different talented artists. I was feeling pretty good about my “naked melody” approach and presented him with some song pieces I had started in that way. After I played him one song idea in particular, a song that I thought was probably the least impressive of the bunch, he surprised me by saying it was one of the best ones so far. Why?

He said something to the effect of, “Your lyrics really grabbed me on that one. You started to tackle a very interesting topic.”

I said, “Then why does it sound so average as a song?”

He replied, “Well, your music doesn’t fit the weight of those lyrics at all. You lyrics are weighty and your music and melody are happy-go-lucky.”

He then picked up his guitar and started singing the exact same lyrics with different music—music that near perfectly matched the sentiment of the words. Before the song was kind of boring. Now it was starting to be very interesting.

My “naked melody” approach suddenly seemed not to be the end-all-be-all system for me. As I worked with Micheal that morning, he kept asking me, “How do you feel like you would sing those words?” and telling me, “Don’t think about, just sing it like they ought to be sung.”

We also talked a lot about penning lyrics in a conversational style that was true to how I would talk as an individual. “Won’t you lose the poetry in conversational style?” I asked. “Not if you talk like only you would talk,” he replied. He asked me to describe what the process of forgiveness is like because we were dabbling in a song that dealt with that topic. I said, “I’ve done some things so selfish and insincere that I wouldn’t want anyone to know about.” And he said, “That’s it! The word insincere. That’s a word I would never use myself, so it feels very poetic to me. But it’s a word you obviously use in conversation, so you choosing that word also feels honest and conversational.”

My mind was blown.

Now I’m in a new phase of my songwriter’s life in trying to think this way—by starting with what I want to write about and then crafting a melody based on the way I would talk about the subject. I’ll start with a lyric that is honest and true to my conversational style and then try to sing it the way it wants to be sung. This is a whole new step in my writing style, and I’m excited to see if it makes me into a better writer (and hopefully doesn’t give me a mental breakdown!)

It seems to be another area of life where you arrive and find out the best way to carry yourself is to just be yourself. Like Michael said, “They’re gonna get it if it’s you.”