Every songwriter gets asked this question all the time. What comes first, the words or the music? Some say they first have a melody, then add words to it. Some start with the words - the lyrics, and then fit that into a melody. I say, it does not matter how you start. As long as eventually they come together.
Most songwriters will tell you that not every song is the same.
I have developed a sort of work flow that works for me for many of my songs. The short version is, it all really happens in parallel, i.e. it come together. The initial starting point is usually the same. For me, writing songs for musical theatre can start in only one place. It must start with the story. Without the song having the story as the main driver, the song does not have a place in a musical.
I can hear lots of people shouting out at me about that statement. People saying, "but what about those musicals that use regular pop songs and put them together, like Mama Mia, Jersey boys, etc.?".
Let me make myself very clear on this point. I have nothing against those kind of musicals, and many of them, I do enjoy. Those musicals are called jukebox musicals. Some of the most successful musicals are jukeboxes. For many producers of musical theatre, the jukebox is a great solution. If you have a great story to tell, but you are not musically trained, it is much better going for this form, than trying to write songs and miserably fail. Staging a jukebox is also often cheaper, as you only have to pay songwriters royalties to SAMRO or similar organization.
Then, you may ask, what am I saying? Let me start by saying: I am a songwriter. I write songs. For me to use a song that somebody else has already written, is not writing. That is using, and I am not a song user, I am a songwriter. I have nothing against song users and jukeboxes. It is like a plumber and an electrician. They both help in building houses. They do not hate each other. They are often great buddies, but they are not the same.
So, when I write a song for a musical, I start with the story. I would find a place in the story where I think the story need a song. That is called "song spotting". When I spot a place where the song goes, I need enough material to put into the song. I'll ask a few questions. What are the emotions at that point? Is it sad, or happy? Is it a love scene (e.g. Strength to carry on), a celebratory scene (e.g. Freedom day), or is it a confrontational scene (e.g. Talk about democracy). The answers to those questions will determine the mood, tempo and melody of the song and often the style of the words I use for the lyrics.
Once I have the general idea of the song, I gather enough material to put into words. Many great songwriters starts with the script or book itself. If you have a well written script, all you have to do is rhyme the words and put it into a rhythmic pattern. Most often things are a bit more complicated and as a songwriter you need to spend extra time in making up enough story to fill up a 3 to 5 minutes of a song. Take note, at this stage I am not talking about full lyrics yet. It will take some time before we have the lyrics of the song ready. I will just write down everything I want to say in the song, without regards of trying to fit it to any rhythm or melody.
Having enough material to make up the song, gives me a good basis to start thinking about the music. Very often I will next decide on the form of the song before I continue. In simple songwriting speak, the "form" refers to the number of repeating verses and choruses. The material I gathered will often lead me here. The general rule with popular songwriting is to have the "story telling" elements in verses and the emotional parts in a chorus. Sometimes there is a part where I want to throw in an alternative viewpoint, or some surprise, which calls for a bridge.
Once I organized the words and stories into logical groups, I decide on how many verses I need and how long each verse should be. Normally, each verse is either 8 or 16 lines long, but different schemes are common. The important thing is to decide on something and then try to stick to it for all verses. For example, if I decide that my song will be best suited by 2 verses, a chorus, then another verse and then another chorus, with the verse being 12 lines long, I have to make sure that I am consistent and have all my verses the same length. Very often, I would find that the material I have gathered in the previous step is not as symmetric as I would like to be, e.g. I have 10 lines for the first verse, 13 lines for the 2nd verse, etc. Clearly, that is not ideal. In such cases, I need to get back to being a bit creative and add extra lines where needed, or cut what is not needed.
Only at that point will I actually switch on my computer, keyboard, or grab a guitar, or take whatever instrument of choice to work on the music. It is my preference to work on the chord progression before I work on the melody. I do not think it is wrong to have a melody first, but then you must be prepared to tweak the melody later on to fit into chord progression. To come up with chord progressions can be a separate field of study all by itself. Without overcomplicating things, I try to keep things interesting and steer away from overused progressions.
Armed with a story and a chord progression, I will start writing the melody. A great tool to use at this point is a little program called Band-in-a-box. I type in the chord progression, choose a style and a tempo and let the computer generate a backtrack. Starting with the first verse, while the computer loop the backtrack over and over again, I will try to sing out the song or play it on the keyboard. This requires me to change the words and the melody repeatedly, until they fit together. It can often take many days before I end up with something that I am happy with.
There are no real rules I follow in writing melodies, other than it must be possible for somebody to sing it. This means I have to know which character will sing it. I have to know at this stage if the melody will by sung by a tenor, bass, or soprano, as each type of singer will have a very different range of notes they can comfortably sing. Believe it or not, but an average man can not sing the same notes as a classically trained soprano.
Once I have a single verse sorted, I will skip to the chorus, following a very similar process as when I wrote the verse.
Having one verse and one chorus is the battle halfway won. Next I will go to the second verse and then the third verse, etc. The melody, at that stage, is more or less fixed, but I might want to go back and tweak it at places. Very often in musical theater songs, different characters will sing different verses (e.g. I am free). It is therefore necessary to adjust the melody to fit for the different voices. The rest is just a matter of fitting the words to the melody.
Until next time. Then we can talk more about the rhyme schemes, rhythm patterns etc.