In a certain school of thought having to do with musical theatre, the composer-lyricist writes the music first — having a general idea what the song will be about — and then writes the lyrics second.
I’ve talked to a lot of singer-songwriters who think this is totally backwards, But there’s a method to the musical theatre mania.
Cole Porter was one such composer. All those great tunes — “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Night and Day,” even “Love for Sale” — were once instrumental pieces of music with no lyrics whatsoever. I am of his school of thought. If I were to write the lyrics first, the music would suffer. I would be trying to squeeze music to previously provided lyrics. As a composer, it would seem as though it wasn’t even my own music. The lyrics would also suffer, because they wouldn’t have the benefit of there being good music already prepared to match them.
Now, I realize that my argument is illogical thus far, because I have made no effort to demonstrate the primacy of music over lyrics in the little world of musical theatre that lives inside my head.
Therefore, I can only make too more-or-less empirical observations:
(1) I very much enjoy finding lyrics that match my previously composed music. Yesterday I did it twice — I finally wrote lyrics to “I Know Who You Are” and “Bone of My Bones” — two songs whose music I wrote in Berkeley in 2016. And Keva’s going to sing them, and I’m jazzed.
(2) Whenever I have written a musical play, people invariably report that among the three main components of a musical theatre libretto — book, music & lyrics — the lyrics are the best. With The Burden of Eden, for example, people mostly said: “Lyrics are outstanding, script is very good, music is kinda so-so.” For Eden in Babylon, it was mostly: “Music is great, script seems all right, but man those lyrics!”
Now I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but if there were ever a renaissance of a culture that had an appreciation for traditional musical theatre mores, I would be right there. Since there isn’t, I just want to thank everyone who has purchased our Keva album, and let you know that the lead sheets to “Bone of My Bones” and “I Know Who You Are” are in her inbox, as we speak.
Two down, three to go.