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Be it Mowgli and balu singing Bare Necessities or Enrique singing Somebody's Me, each song (or poem) has their way of being sung. Were such songs written after selection of musical note, tone, and form?

What is the order? First music is created or song is written or vice versa? What if I want to write a song but I don't have the slightest of knowledge of music, notes and forms? Will I end up writing a poem? (Oh well, this question brought me another question of difference between poem and song. I shall ask it as another question.)

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  • Hi, I think asking about considering musical things when writing poetry is a very different question than asking about them for writing lyrics, so I edited your question to focus on lyrics. If you want to change it, go ahead, but my concern is it will make the question too broad. My answer is only about lyrics.
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:23
  • Also, if you want to add back the poetry tag so you can enter the tags of the week contest, I won't say a word. I only removed it to focus on the songwriting aspect of the question, before remembering about the contest. writing.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1956/…
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:24
  • Hi @cyn, no it's perfectly fine. I included poetry because I was confused about difference between poem and song plus there wasn't any song tag. Apr 6, 2019 at 18:32
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    Yeah there are no tags for song/music or anything related, except lyrics. There is rhythm but it's for the rhythm of poems. While of course we're about the written word here, we have tags for artwork and comics (which is the combo of words and art).
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:35
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    @wizzwizz4 True. But I felt bad when I realized that I'd messed up the tags for that purpose. Poetry is not an unreasonable tag for this question and the OP did have it there originally.
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:52

2 Answers 2

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I am a (part-time) composer, and I have written the music for songs using all kinds of lyrics, written any time from Chaucer to the present day.

I would say that if you don't have any practical musical experience, don't worry about it. The opera composer Rossini once had a pupil learning composition who complained that he could never find the right lyrics for the masterpiece he wanted to compose. Rossini gave something written on a piece of paper, and told him to come back with the song at the next lesson.

The piece of paper was … a thrown-away shopping list.

I would say the main things to understand about music is that (like a movie, a stage play, or oral story-telling, but unlike a written book) it exists only in real time. It "works" by setting up predictions about what is going to happen next in the listener's head, over different timescales (ranging from seconds right up to hours, for a long work) and by doing things that are either expected or unexpected in the context of those predictions. Because the process happens only in real time, repetition is a crucial element - set up a "pattern", and then destroy it, either subtly and gradually, or explosively.

The best sort of lyrics (IMO) are raw material for that process. A poem with beautifully crafted regular rhyme and rhythm doesn't work very well, because there is nothing for the music to add to it. A poem where the reader is expected to spend hours or days thinking about it and re-reading it doesn't work either, since music only works in real time.

If you look at classic lyrics, for example from the "golden era" of stage musicals, you will find exactly that process of setting up and knocking down expectations. Lots of half-rhymes. Lots of internal rhymes within a line. Complete lines that sometimes don't rhyme at all. Verse rhythms that might be consistent for a few syllables together, are all over the shop on a medium time scale, but suddenly fit together neatly (perhaps by verbatim repetition of whole sections of text - call them "verses" or "choruses" if you like, but the names don't matter) at a longer time scale. Grammar, syntax, and even meaning can be thrown out of the window if they get in the way. But it's all grist to the musical mill, and the music can glue the "broken pieces" back together in ways that don't make sense on the printed page.

Just one classic example, from "Singing in the Rain":

...
A rose is a rose
A toes is a toes 
A Mose is a Mose
...

… WTF does that actually MEAN, as English text? Nothing at all - but it works perfectly, in a song and dance routine.

(Yes, I know it's a half a quote from a poem by Gertrude Stein. And IMO the main point of that reference, in terms of the song, is that if you pick up that ball and expect the song to run with it, it doesn't. And if you never heard of Gertrude Stein, that doesn't matter either.)

If old movies don't rock your boat, analyse the lyrics of "Bohemian Rhapsody" instead. It works exactly the same way.

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There are multiple ways to write a song.

Sometimes a composer will pick up already written lyrics.

Sometimes a lyricist will work off of an already written melody and arrangement (less common for an original song but happens all the time with parody or other alternative songs).

Some pairings of composers and lyricists will work at the same time and hash things out as they go. Or any combination of the above.

And of course people who write both music and lyrics will have their own ways of working, and they can vary song to song.

If you want to write a song but don't have any music for it, at least know the musical genre and the tempo.

There are also differences in how easy it is to sing certain words vs speak them out loud. Reading out loud helps a lot when writing a song, but a singer will spot things you didn't catch.

I'm not a musician, though I sing a little, can tap out melodies on the piano, and read sheet music. I've tried writing music and I am horrifically awful at it. I wrote countless lyrics as a teen and a friend put some of them to music for me.

My only professional credit for a song came from a play (supposed to be taped for PBS, but that never happened) where the director commissioned me to write the lyrics.

I knew the genre was a light musical theater style but not much else. So I wrote them but of course didn't know how the arrangement would go. I never even met the composer. He wrote the music and altered my lyrics just enough that he took a shared byline with me for the lyrics.

If you want to write lyrics, take some music classes. Singing, piano, guitar, anything. And sit down with actual composers and try to write something together, even if it goes nowhere.

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    I see. So I need to learn atleast basics of music. Apr 6, 2019 at 18:33
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    @KaranDesai I would. Otherwise, why write songs?
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:36
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    @KaranDesai Find "some person" and ask her/him. Some lyrics are much easier to turn into songs than others. If you don't know the forms, you might find composers giving up on you. I mean, you can't write a comic book if you don't know the artistic form...you can't just hand your prose to an artist and say, have at. It needs to be organized in a particular way. Some artists might work with you anyway (like a spouse) but others will nope their way right out of that partnership. Ditto with songwriting.
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:44
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    Who are you writing songs for? What are you imagining for having them performed? Where will you submit them?
    – Cyn
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:45
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    @KaranDesai As one example that comes immediately to mind, you might consider comparing the English translations of Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem by Traquair/Benson and Hoggard. The first is nearly unsingable because of the bad lyrical translation, the second a pure pleasure. Same exact music, same underlying words. Apr 6, 2019 at 20:56

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