For all those DJs out there, how many times has someone come up to you in the middle of a set and asked “hey!!! can you play that song…I don’t what it’s called but it that goes like this….(insert off key humming with a few lyric scraps)”?
Most DJs have probably lost count but there’s an important lesson here. Before someone is intimately familiar with a song, the first thing that usually sticks in their head is the melody. There may be a few memorable lyrics but the melody tends to hit before those lyrics. How our brains process lyrics vs melody is a bit of a mystery but a little bit of light is shed on it in this article.
Excluding the neuroscience angle, another possibility as to why melody might stick first is because lyrics aren’t always intelligible. You may be in a public place and there is ambient noise. Or you are doing the dishes at home while listening to the radio. When there is noise that distracts or interferes with how we hear the song, the first thing to go is probably the lyrics. The music (including the melody) still has a chance to poke through the noise and so that is your greatest hope of leaving something with the listener when the song is over.
For a songwriter, I think this information is important because it gives an indication of where you need to make the most investment to get your song to pay off. Your song needs to be catchy and you need to make whatever elements hit the listener first as sticky as possible to reel them in. Preferably on that first listen.
Does this mean that you should compose the melody before lyrics? Not necessarily, but composing the melody first can help you focus on coming up with something catchy which, when repeated enough times, will stick in the audience’s head. Working with lyrics first is more limiting because the phonetics of the lyrics will dictate, to some extent, the melody. And the melodic combinations available from a specific set of lyrics may not yield a good enough melody for the song.
In reality, you probably meet somewhere in the middle. You come up with a melody, work out some lyrics, and if the lyrics don’t fit you either change the melody or scrap the lyric. Or vice versa.
This leads to one of my favorite mottos: “sometimes you need sacrifice great lyrics on the altar of a great song”. You may have a killer lyric that is clever or captures an idea really well, but if you can’t make it work melodically and/or rhythmically (hip hop) then you are better off scrapping it. My experience is that having a good lyric with a better topline melody will trump a better lyric with a good melody. If neither is at least good then you probably should rewrite.
Food for thought.