Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?
“When writing a song, which comes first?...The words? The melody? The chords?”
This is one of the most common questions that a songwriter will get from an eager student or an enthusiastic fan, or sometimes from a friend curiously pondering as they listen to a song. There is an easy answer to this...
There is NO set method that is universally practiced by everyone.
The songwriting process is vast in its ways of manifesting and inspiring itself into existence with the help of a skilled (or not always so skilled) conduit. The conduit for this divine outpouring is YOU, and it’s Me, and it’s every being with the intention and desire to make it so.
The process is unique to the Creator.
Everyone has their own style, preferences, approaches, inspirations, hang-ups, and interests. ALL of these things and more converge to find culmination of expression; their actual manifestation (often into sheet music, recording, or even a simple performance), and there is NO one way to get to this climactic end point.
The starting point is not as important to pursue as it is to practice the art of capturing a moment, an idea, a thought, or a melody.
The most critical aspect of the songwriting process is to be on high alert for a tasty morsel, as if they were crumbs falling from the hand of Toth himself. As a point of reference, Toth is the Egyptian God of writing, music, language, and all other creative arts.
If you don’t learn how to bottle stardust, and swipe a bolt of lightning with a moments notice, then songwriting will be a harder practice to master, for these quick-reflex responses to a flash in the eye are imperative. Move slow, miss the opportunity. And that’s not to say that songwriting is a fast process, not at all actually, but what does need to be sharp, is the ability to take the initiative to act. Grab that pen and paper; jot down that note, record that phrase or melody - like Nike says.. JUST DO IT. Don’t miss that moment because if you do then you won’t have the chance to write down or develop anything, because the page will be blank.
So about this chicken and egg…
It doesn’t matter. The starting point is IRRELEVANT. I have personally created in all the venues.. Melody first? Sure...sometimes. Chords or rhythm? Of course!! Sometimes. Lyrics first? Totally...when it happens that way.
Get the idea?
So not to leave you hanging, oh eager reader, I will share this additional advice:
The more you experiment with your instrument, or your voice, or your paintbrush, or your video camera, then the more ideas will come to you. It’s just the natural way of it. If you are constantly creating then you are likely to be in a regular state of imagination, fantasizing, pondering, tinkering, listening, and absorbing. Immerse yourself in your craft and the craft will immerse itself in you. Art is reciprocative; be it from the canvas’ reaction to you, as much as yours to it. Include the presence of the Divine, the Source of all creation, that which is unnamed by some, called God/dess by others, or whatever it is that you hold responsible for the human experiment. With that presence, realize that the well never runs dry. The earth ever-fertile. All you need to do is show up… and be prepared. The rest is a collaboration with “all things”, the “one” if you will.
A word on how one element can direct another..
If you write the lyrics first, then the rhythmic cadence, syllable arrangement, dialect, or even language, can often dictate how the melody will come about. If you are singing a song in Arabic, then it’s likely you will be using regionally appropriate scales and rhythms. The poetic elements of writing will work in tandem with the rhythmic and melodic elements of music more often than not.
If you devise a chord progression or arrangement, that can sometimes help lay out a roadmap of how many lyrics you will need to create to fill the space. It will also govern elements of the time signature and syncopation. It will also present the key you are to be working with.
In cases where the melody comes first, then aspects such as chords and harmony can be more up to creative interpretation. Not everyone may choose the same chord to wrap around the single melody note, whereas when presented with a chord, it’s not at all uncommon for different people, separate of each other, to gravitate more naturally towards the Root or the 3rd. The 5th of a triad is not unheard of, but it’s been my experience that people gravitating right to the 5th is a little odd. I don’t do that a lot myself, though I have used the 5th as the basis of a melody… It’s just a little weird. Anyway...
See what I mean?
It’s not something you can predict, though it is something you can intentionally do, meaning that I can sit at a piano and ONLY play single notes and write melodies all night. I can also sit at that same piano and ONLY play chords. I can not use a piano at all and just have a pen and paper and write words. There are endless options really.
Surrender to the forces of creation..
Something else worth noting is that often people get stuck in the “should and shouldn’t” game, and that is a bad place to end up. Creation cannot be forced, though it can be enticed. Ever hear the expression, “you attract more bees with honey than vinegar”? In this case, the creation is the bee and the play/practice is the honey, and the resistance is the vinegar. The more you play with your craft the more bees there will be pollinating your flowers.
Enough About Bees And Flowers! Back to Chickens and Eggs…
As the old rhetorical question goes, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, so goes the story of songwriting. To figure out the answer to this, one must conduct extensive research, perform experiments, study science, math, and history, and then at the end of all that, hop in a time machine to prove it all. OR.. instead of doing all of this, you can just accept that in our current reality, we have both chickens and eggs, and they are both accessible to us without knowing the deep answer of origins. At any moment you can have an egg, or you can have a chicken, and the end result will still be a full belly (unless you are vegetarian or vegan). The creation is the full belly.
The initiation mechanism need not be pinned down and called “truth”. Personal truth is different than universal truth, and that is valid, though it can also be potentially limiting. If something is at one time perceived as truth and then later the perspective shifts to a new truth, than that can leave a person feeling a little lost or confused about their beliefs, and in turn that can spiral into deeper waters of questioning one's own validity. For me, I accept all possibilities as “truth”, I just don’t accept all possibilities as my own truth, and when it comes to things of a creative nature, I suspend all truths, even music theory and other fact-based practices, and I let my imagination take the driver's seat. If Picasso had stuck to “truth” based painting, he may have just been another drop in the bucket of run-of-the-mill portrait painters. Now imagine how boring art would become if it was all created based on rules and standards. We need the system shakers to water the garden of culture, and for songwriters this is no different. The Beatles were breaking rules when they mixed pop and classical, granted they were the rules of the time in many ways, but there were classical musicians that were in the orchestra while the chaotic mid-section was happening in the recording session of “A Day In the Life”, and many were outwardly calling foul on the Beatles for bastardizing a pristine art form (classical music). In the end though, I think the Beatles won that battle. The examples are endless, and the proof is in the pop-culture pudding because odd is very frequently in and the status quo is not good enough for a rebellious teenager.
Approach writing your songs in this fashion. Throw away all preconceived notions of right and wrong, and rules, and live dangerously...but most of all, don’t get hung up on how inspiration will come. Be open, and be receptive to universal downloads, and play, play, play. The muses of inspiration often take up residence in the eyes and adventures of small children, and that’s because a child has not yet burdened themselves with the constructs of education. There is such a thing as “over-education”, and there is sometimes detriment to knowing how the hot dogs are made. Sometimes the best creations come from approaching things as a child would; wide eyed, open minded, and with a daring sense of adventure.
So To Answer The Question About The Chicken And The Egg…
It doesn’t matter. Not at all. Just let the song happen however it is to happen, and then...and ONLY then, concern yourself with how to improve what has been created, because the 2nd, 4th, and 10th drafts are the next important step in the process.
I hope this was a helpful breakdown of my approach to songwriting starting points.
Till next time. Be well.