Brad Roberts is the 3x Grammy nominated, 10x platinum selling inimitable lead singer-songwriter of the Crash Test Dummies.
As a songwriter who has done many interviews, I have found that one of the most commonly asked questions is, “What do you write first, the lyrics or the music?”
The answer is both. Further, there are distinct advantages to each approach.
When I began writing songs, I believed that if I wrote a good solid melody and set of chord changes first, then no matter what lyric I wrote, it would be housed in a good solid musical structure. This served me well. It entailed counting the syllables needed to fulfill the melody, and then laying the words over the syllable count, as on a grid. This was often difficult, but it worked: MMM-MMM-MMM-MMM, God Shuffled His Feet, Superman’s Song – all of these were written using this method.
One day in the late 1990’s, I heard a rhythm – no music – and a couple of phrases in my head. I proceeded to sit down and write out a lyric, following a strict meter: four syllables per line in the verse; and six syllables per line in the chorus. I also made sure that the stress was on every second syllable: for example, I would write, “Your bleeding heart,” but not “Bleeding your heart,” because the accent falls on the first syllable of the word “bleeding.”
When I composed the music the next day, I found that this strict metrical approach fell out beautifully over any number of chord changes, because it had a built in flow of its own to begin with. I was quite pleased with myself, and have continued to use this method ever since.
There is a method that lies between the two – although it is more like a revelation than a method – and it involves writing the music and lyric more or less simultaneously. This usually happens, for me, when I’m washing the dishes, or doing some rote task. A phrase and a melody will pop into my head. This first phrase inspires the rest of the lyric; and this first melody inspires the rest of the music.
I have used both methods ever since, to great effect, and in a wide variety of musical genres. Want to get better songs? I suggest you try the first two methods. If you do this every day for a week, I guarantee that when Sunday rolls around and you’re doing the dishes, a little piece of music and a handful of words will drop from the heavens and into your mouth. When it does, run to your instrument, get your pen and paper, and start taking dictation from the Almighty.