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Sunday, March 24, 2013

What comes first: Words or music?

By Ted Slowik

Songwriters often are asked what comes first, words of music? This raises a broader question about the songwriting process.

The question may be easy for some to answer, but for most it's probably complicated. That's because the songwriting process varies greatly. Typically an individual will experience several different styles or processes when writing songs. There's no right or wrong answer, no style is better than the other. Songs just come about in different ways.

First, there's the noodling approach. A lot of musicians, especially guitarists who aspire to be songwriters, experience this. You're playing your instrument, messing around with scales and such, and you come up with a neat little hook. It's nice. It sounds cool. It's original. You want to make something of it so you build a song around it. This approach more or less uses original songs as a vehicle to showcase a musician's talents and abilities.

Then there's the throwaway. All songwriters have experienced this. It's a simple song, with easy chords and a basic progression (12-bar blues is common) and words that may range from personal to silly to everyday. The thing just sort of writes itself. It just comes to you, maybe after you've been working hard on something completely different. It's usually fun to play and can be a favorite of fans. Ironically, throwaway songs are sometimes a writer's biggest successes.

But most good writing isn't stumbled upon. It's arrived at after much hard work and careful deliberation. The challenge for writers is to take a finite number of musical notes and words and sounds and assemble them into a melody and lyrics that haven't yet been arranged that way. Writers want their new material to be different not only from all of recorded and composed music created before them, but also distinct enough from their own previous body of work.

Professional songwriters commissioned to write a piece might start with research, like a term paper. Reading, in general, is a great way to get inspiration for lyrics. If Robert Plant hadn't been reading "Lord of the Rings" we might not have ended up with "Led Zeppelin IV." Travel also is good inspiration. Anything that takes you out of the routine and shakes things up can be good.

A song can start as a idea: you want to write about a subject, so you start thinking about it. A lot. Maybe constantly. Eventually, you might get ideas for a line or two or start humming a melody. Maybe words and music come to you simultaneously. If you're lucky enough to get started that way, you might get a verse down and then a chorus. Then a second verse would be written to fit the music, so in that case the music comes first.

But a poem can be set to music, so the lyrics can come first, too. It all depends. Great writing can take a long time. You might try all kinds of musical arrangements and transitions from one part of a song to the next and reject them until you hit upon the one where you go, "Ah, that's it." It's a eureka moment, when you know you've got something good.

The same is true with words. You might be tempted to take the first words that come to mind and stick them in. Who hasn't gone through the alphabet thinking of a word to end a second stanza to rhyme with the first? It's OK to stick any old words in there as placeholders. But it's good to step back, maybe sleep on it, come back to it and ask, "Can I do better?" The first choice often is too obvious and predictable.

Sometimes great songs come about by sheer will. You imagine the mood your song will create, or the reaction it will get from the listener and you try to achieve that. Sometimes what you end up with is far from what you imagined, but you may still be satisfied with the result.

So, songwriters, what do you think? What's your songwriting process like?