The perennial question asked of a songwriter is the rather hackneyed which comes first words or music? It might be asked of an author in respect of character or plot? Or a painter and subject or colours? It is an impossible question to answer. Some songwriters are ‘setters’ of words like Elton John whose music is inspired by the lyric of Bernie Taupin; some are teams like Page and Plant, where Jimmy’s ‘riffery’ is the backdrop for Robert’s lyrical outpouring. For a solo songster, it is all apiece. Strumming idly at a few chords and suddenly a lyric forms in the subconscious; or a tangled phrase jumps out of a conversation and lodges in the mind; or a melody, incessant and gnawing, an earworm begging to be verbalised. Sometimes it is a rhythm, a groove, or even just a sound: a train on a track: bells ringing across a hillside. The stimulation to write is as irrational as anger or love; it just emerges and when songwriting is what you do, then you have to do it.

 

Songwriting can be like physical fitness: it requires a little exercise to begin. You start with short and simple before unwinding into more complex and difficult. The idea determines the style: at least in a perfect world it should. An idea arrives and its ‘background’ the music that will support it is suggested quite quickly. It is never fixed, and frequently changes, although it is reasonable to say that songs that most easily find their place have a sense of clean perfection that is difficult to realise over time. It is often better to leave an idea that won’t settle until another day or week or month, when the time may be right.

 

Great songwriters are also as different as the songs they write. A professional songwriter is so called because he is ‘commissioned to write’ songs for artists: they often work in teams (lyrics and music) and the history goes back to George and Ira Gershwin, through Rodgers and Hammerstein; Bacharach and David;  Goffin and King; right up to the present day. Many were housed in buildings or areas specifically designed to host songwriting teams: the Brill Building;  Motown; Tin Pan Alley; for example. These songwriters churned out hits for the roster of artists on the labels they represented usually to a pre-determined style but often with a distinct voice.

 

But there are other songwriters whose work is typically for themselves: the songwriter in a band or as a solo artist: sometimes they are contractually paired because they start life as foils for each other’s development and the partnership stuck: Lennon and McCartney; Davies and Hodgson; but more often they sit proudly in the brackets beneath the titles of the songs they have written as a single word (Bowie) or (Knopfler), or as a full name (James Taylor) or (Randy Newman). That is not to say that these personal songwriters’ songs do not get picked up by other artists, and in many cases, Randy Newman for example, their careers are built largely on the success of their songs as sung by other artists.

 

So, as a summary, to define songwriting precisely is simply not possible or necessary thankfully, and that is why it attracts so many, and why the output so varied. But what we can attempt to do in this blog, is reflect on the elements that make up a song in the hope that we may become better songwriters next time the muse visits us.