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“What comes first, the lyrics or the music?”

04 Feb Posted by in Blog | Comments
“What comes first, the lyrics or the music?”

If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me this question, I’d be able to afford studio time to record all my songs! I think it’s the kind of a question that people think you’re supposed to ask a songwriter.

Recently, at a house concert in Philadelphia, when a guest asked me the same thing, I started to answer the way I usually do:

“EVERYBODY always asks that question!” I said. “It’s a difficult question to answer.” Then I stopped. I made a decision. “Do you want to know what I really think?” I asked. Because I’d met him a couple of days before (he was a neighbor of the guy hosting the concert), I knew this guy could handle the truth.

The guy said, “Yes!”

I smiled. “I think it’s a stupid question.”

He guffawed and the rest of the 25 or so attendees broke out in laughter.

“It’s not a stupid question per se,” I backpedaled a bit. “It’s just that you’re always going to get a different answer. So the question really is more about why you’re asking it. If you are a budding songwriter [I knew this guy wasn’t], the answer shouldn’t really make a difference. It won’t affect your process or make you change the way you approach your writing. And if you’re just curious about MY process, I guess that’s legitimate. But I always imagine that people that ask this question are collecting answers to the question. Are you doing that, Frank?”

He shook his head. Then he added, “But maybe I will from now on!”

We all laughed again. “Well, okay, then,” I responded. “I’ll indulge your curiosity. But I can’t promise it will be enlightening.” And then I answered the question.

My point to you all, as fellow songwriters, is that the answer to the question really doesn’t matter! How you write is how you write. How you compose is how you compose. How you eat your peas with a knife is how you eat your peas. But I digress.

Whatever your process — and I imagine that it didn’t spring fully developed from your head like Athena from Zeus’ skull, but that you came to it over the course of days, weeks, months, even years — honor it, trust it. And, this is most important, let it be what it is, and that may include its continued evolution — it may still change or adapt over time.

In the immortal words of Iris DeMent, “Let the mystery be.”

Now go write some songs!

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I know some people who only write one way (“It’s always the music first.” “They come at the same time for me.”). Good for them! I myself vary the diet. Sometimes it’s the words; sometimes it’s the lyrics; sometimes they come together. Sometimes it depends on whether I’ve been commissioned to write something, so it’s even more contextual — What do the lyrics have to be about? What sentiment are we expressing? How do we want the listener to feel regarding the tempo? But that’s a topic for another time.

Bob De Dea

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