Songwriting: Words then Music or Music then words? What do I write first, song lyrics or the music? by Coral Hall - Profesora de inglés

Songwriting: Words then Music or Music then words? What do I write first, song lyrics or the music?

Songwriting: Words with Music or Music with Words


What comes first? The song lyrics or the music?

Those who know me know I have been a songwriter and written poems since I was able to write. Something always fascinated me about language patterns in music and poems. As children we listen and we learn songs and music and are inspired by sounds we hear growing up. It is our most primal instincts that tell us what sounds good or bad to us, it is as if music were a universal language. Sounds can be emotive and help us resonate with what we hear, or on the contrary, like an alarm or ambulance, uncomfortable to listen to inorder to get our attention or warn us. It is for sure a positive thing to have music in our lives and furthermore, there are many therapeutic benefits to creating,writing and singing songs.

How to start writing a song

I write songs in English and have been releasing new tracks with our band, Foxiloro. Music and writing are things that I am very passionate about and writing them can be very simple. I will be focusing on the lyrics or words of the songs mainly in this step by step, as that is a good place to begin when exploring ideas and developing a song structure or if you are not sure about what music to play yet.

Points to Consider

There are different points to consider when writing a song or poem, such as the length of your sentences. The syllable pattern that these words, also known as lyrics in music, when put together create a pattern of rhythm. For this reason, you can see in many song structures, a variety of patterns of repeated words, phrases or sounds in a verse. The music can be decided by the words,or we can create a base for the lyrics to sit on top of, adding more melodies or harmonic patterns of music in between, under or over it. In our case, the band would use a repeated pattern or riff with their instruments that sit within the same key of the song. The lyrics can be expressed in many different ways to fit a different pattern or length and this is related to the song tempo/speed and the feeling or genre of the song. Our band write in both ways; sometimes, we have the lyrics first and sometimes the music.It depends if you are inspired by the music to write the words, or if the lyrics inspire the music.

Rhyme and Rythym: Which is more important?

Another large aspect of writing poetry or writing songs is rhyme. This is where we use words with the same sound at the end of the song line. It is not so important for a poem to rhyme but for a song, the listener kind of expects it, as it gives a repetition that our brains favor and makes it more memorable. It can also help us to memorise the words and helps us to get an understanding of the music pattern, or feel what the song is saying. Many people believe this is the hardest part, however, this can be done also with the help of making a structural process when writing and the use of rhyming dictionaries to create lists of ryhmes for one type of word sound; Like information, education, frustration, inspiration; or see, me, free, plea, be. Assonance can be used to create a type of inperfect rhyme and maybe with a phrase rather than just one word; crazy, baby, wavy, ´amaze me´. Personally, I think the rythym is most important, as it coveys feeling and links with the percussion, tempo and rythm of the music.
 Example: line ideas: The breaking of a new dawn, A door is open for new ideas
- becomes- The new dawn has broken, for ideas a door is open
or alternatively, and more ambiguos: New ideas for a new dawn, The breaking open of a door.

What are the Steps in writing a song?

For me, when writing, I like to to have a muse. I need to feel inspired by an idea, emotion, situation, or subject to write about. I have the utmost respect for musicians and singers that can ad lib the lyrics or create as they go, like in rap battles, as their brains are working out the next lines while they are still expressing the previous one. That is clever. Luckily, I am not required to do that on stage and so instead, I always begin on paper. Writing all my ideas, thoughts and feelings down like in a brainstorm. There is something about pen to paper for me, that helps the flow of ideas more than typing and it allows me to still see the old ideas, later I type it into the GoogleDrive so all the band members have a copy.

I will use a song called Surreal to demonstrate how simple it can be:

How I start writing lyrics:

  1. I write sentences and brainstorm ideas initially, before choosing my favourite concepts or selection of words. Once whittled down to twenty or thirty lines, I am able to start putting them together. 

  Example: I feel real, my feelings are real, they are so real, let me tell you how I feel because I am feeling surreal, I want to tell you how I feel
  1. I will usually find a rhythm within these lines and use synonyms or similar words, to find ways of putting my ideas together so that they fit to the pattern. This can be changed later by holding notes, extending syllables and dropping parts of words or connectors like and or but, which can easily be omitted in songs. They call this artistic license and it means you don't have to be grammatically correct in songwriting. However, we need to know the rules before we can break them! Words like going to, can be changed to ´gonna`, to create flow and a two-syllable word rather than a verb and separate preposition. It is also easier to sing as the mouth needs to change shape less inbetween words and the voice can be projected better. Harsh consonants are also avoided in singing like changing feeling and feelin´. 

    Example: I wanna tell you, how I feel, got me feelin´,surreal (note held to maintain the rhythm)

  1. Once you have your favourite lines or sentences, you can see which ones have rhyming elements and maybe we can use inversion to reword the sentence. Often this works well because it creates more poetic lines, more ambiguous, multi-interpretable and metaphorical meaning to the song. This is frequently seen in songs to add depth and listeners can develop their own meaning. 

Example: This is a Foxiloro song called Surreal that is a very simple structure:

Listen as you read HERE

Listen via Youtube HERE

Written by Foxiloro
Gonna tell you 
How I feel
Got me feelin´ surreal 
And my feelings are real
Let me tell you how I feel
(oh so real)
Let me tell you how I feel
I´m feeling surreal
Wanna tell you 
Just how I feel
You got me feelin´
An´ my feelings are real
Let me tell you how I feel
Oh so real
Let me tell you how I feel
I´m feeling surreal 
  1. Rhyming in this song is using the word `surreal´ with the expression `so real´ and the repetition of `tell you´ to add melody. Real, surreal and feel have been manipulated into an order where they rhyme on every other line so they alternate rhyming pattern. However, they also have rhyming couplets, which is where two consecutive lines rhyme. 

I will use an example of our latest song, The Now to demonstrate that songs don´t have to rhyme. It can be rhythm and structure that creates the flow. It actually only has two rhyming lines. It relies on assonance, which is the word rhythm that sounds similar, take a listen and read along:

The Now
Written by Foxiloro
Click HERE for Spotify to listen and follow
Click HERE for YouTube 
In the void
Looking at my now
Wisdom’s rain
And lightening vision
Is this me?
I wanna taste 
the sun! 
I wanna taste 
the sun! 
When we’re sinking
Dying in the blue
Our Legacies drowning
Cause we never thought we could
Is this you?
Is this you? 
I wanna taste 
the sun! 
Oh let me taste
I wanna taste
the sun!  
  1. Rhythm and adding music is pretty essential for a song. Even a poem has rhythm, although it may be less obvious and less repetitive as to not remove the emphasis from the words, for example like a sonnet or play verse. There are poems like limericks which rely on the rhythm to arrive at the end line on a high; however, given that usually songs have a typical 4/4 distribution of the music beat or tempo, the lyrics for songs tend to have more of a structured pattern. Start by tapping your foot to the words to see how they read, then try different chords on an instrument to see what sound fits best with the song. It is easier to start with four chords to a verse (a section of the song) dividing it up into one or two chords per line, where these are placed is your decision. As a general rule, the more words, the less chord changes and frequency of touches, like Wave Survivor; and with a song that has less lyrics, there can be more space for the instruments so they can be played more frequently, like Surreal. 


More complex structures:

Got something to say?

 A more complex song can be ballads or slow songs. Too many words and it loses the feeling, too few and there are no notes to hold to create atmosphere. I will use one of our more complicated songs to analyse, in order to show how the patterns of words affect the pace and feeling of the song and how the lyrics have been changed to accommodate the vocal. I have highlighted the assonance, underlined the rhyme pattern, put repetition in bold and coloured the alliteration (using letters with the same sound)  to show a more complex form:

Follow the track HERE

For YouTube HERE

Wave Survivor
By Foxiloro
Adrenaline keep me sane
Take me on waves of freedom
The water´s clear, unlike me
Heavy heart, salty skin
Help me dream again
But the waves keep coming 
And I can’t see
Lost and found, man down,
Water reflects less now
Heads hang low
To and fro
It’s do or die
The tension´s high
And the land is nigh
My dreams run dry
There I see
Right there in the distance
This is my chance to dive,
And there in the distance
I'm the only wave to survive 
The only wave to survive
Adrenaline has kept me sane
It's taken me waves of freedom 
To bring me here
To set me free
And heavy hearts and salty skin
Helped me dream again
now I´ll stop running- (rhymes with the first verse-´coming´)
´Cause now I'm free
Now I'm free

Wave Survivor was written about the ongoing current situation in which migrants are risking their lives in sailing in small boats across the ocean to reach the hope of a better life. We wanted to create the bass guitar like a heartbeat, running on adrenaline but also like the drum on a rowing boat. Also the nautical style guitar riff echoes a wave pattern, similar to the ocean. The words in the first verse are blunt and on the beat which create a sense of urgency and rush, conveying a mission for survival. At the same time, the chorus is about hope and excitement and has more repetitive elements, marked in bold to emphasise the words we want the listener to hear, survive. The second verse explains a death initially and has a lack of words, like when a death is experienced, later it reflects the journey in hindsight and the lines change shape to be slightly longer and convey a message of sadness but calm towards the end. Please go to the Foxiloro website to see other structures of our songs if you are interested.


So give it a go! Write down some thoughts, ideas or feelings and express it through poetry or song. Also study lyrics of your favourite singers or bands and see what message there is and how else do they convey it?

1ª Clase Gratis