Does a songwriter have to write the music for their songs, or can they focus just on lyrics? In this F.A.Q. on songwriting duties, I’ll explain who is usually responsible for writing the music of a song.
Do Songwriters Also Write the Music?
Yes, many songwriters write the music to go with the lyrics but not all do. There are plenty of famous musicians who only ever penned lyrics and never composed backing music for their songs (I’ll provide examples later).
Furthermore, a lot of songwriters will ad-lib a melody line for their lyrics but don’t work out the chords or accompaniment on their own. These artists would therefore qualify as being top-liners but may not see themselves as full-fledged composers.
The genre and label status of a songwriter dictates how much composing they do on top of songwriting.
In general, independent artists and producers are more likely to write both lyrics and music of a song. This is largely out of necessity, as an indie artist will often lack the money and connections to outsource the composition work. Major label artists and songwriters, on the other hand, have less need to perform both tasks and may focus on just lyrics. This is especially true for lyricists working for a big three record label.
It Depends on The Genre
Genre impacts the music process, as well. It’s more common for artists to multi-task in rock-leaning styles of music.
Songwriters are more likely to double as composers in genres like:
- Alternative or indie rock,
- Indie pop and bedroom pop,
- Indie folk and folk pop,
- Pop-Punk and emo
They are more likely to just pen lyrics in genres like:
- Rap and trap,
- Classic rock and metal,
- Mainstream pop,
- Techno and dance pop
Writing Music vs Melody
It’s important that we differentiate between the composition of accompaniment (the backing tracks, harmony, chords, etc) and top line (the melody that is sung).
Many songwriters do not play instruments and don’t “compose” in the formal sense. Yet they may still come up with a melody for their lyrics on the fly.
Making a melody for your lyrics still counts as music composition. But a lot of songwriters don’t think of it as being composition because they don’t sit down to a guitar or piano and write out the notes.
So a lot of songwriters also work as top liners (people who compose a melody line) without realizing it.
Famous Examples of Lyrics-Only Songwriters
I’ve compiled a list of songwriters who may compose top lines but, generally, don’t write the music accompaniment of their songs.
- Morrissey of The Smiths
- Milo Aukerman of The Descendents
- Anthony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Chris Barnes of Cannial Corpse (Death Metal)
- Andy Bell of Erasure (Synth Pop)
- Matt Berninger of The National (Indie Rock)
- Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth (Melodic Death Metal)
- Alice Cooper of Alice Cooper (Glam Rock)
- Rich Cronin of LFO (Pop Rap)
- Kanye West (Rap)
Do Songwriters Make the Melody?
Yes, songwriters often do form a melody for their lyrics either intentionally or inadvertently; but it’s not a requirement for songwriting. Some lyricists will instead borrow an implied melody that already appears in their backing track (if music has already been written). Likewise, a songwriter may write the words for a song only after a composer/producer has already written a melody, fitting the words to the notes and rhythm.
As I mentioned earlier, writing the melody is a form of composition called top-lining. An independent singer-songwriter will likely piece together a melody during the lyric process. But, if you work with a musician or hire a producer to make your backing track, they may provide a rough melody for you.
It all depends on your process and who you work with.
What Do Songwriters Write?
As the very minimum, a songwriter creates the lyrics for a song. They may also create a melody line to match the lyrics but, when that process occurs at the same time as the lyrics composition, it’s usually just considered an additional part of the songwriting role.
If a songwriter creates the backing track or accompaniment for their songs, then they are also consider the song’s composer. And, if they mix and/or master the track, then the songwriter is also doubling as the producer.
Who Writes The Music for a Song?
The composer is the person who writes music for a song, while the songwriter usually pens the lyrics. In many situation, the composer and songwriter are the same person. But there are still many instances where somebody other than the lyricist creates the background music.
When it comes to copyright law, the roles of composer and songwriter are not differentiated. That means anybody who contributes to either the music or lyrics of a song is considered a copyright claimant.
Most streaming services don’t differentiate the two roles, either. A songwriter (as in lyricist) will be listed as a “composer” in the liner motes of most digital music platforms. So, if you buy a beat online and combine it with your original lyrics (and/or melody), then you and the beat maker should both be listed as “composers” of the song.
And you’ll usually split the royalty rights 50/50.
Songwriters are primarily responsible for creating lyrics. But you will often find them composing and producing other parts of a song, as well. And don’t be discouraged if you lack a background in music theory or instrumentation.
Just because you write songs does not mean you must also compose the backing music for them. There are many ways that you can source backing tracks without needing to play an instrument.
Thanks for reading this far and I hope you found this article helpful. If so, then here are a few more guides that you may enjoy: