At dinner last night, my friend mentioned a dichotomy between two kinds of song: one in which the music exists to serve the lyrics, and another in which the lyrics exist to support or accompany the music. In some cases, she said, the words don’t really matter at all: the music is everything (this is why I have found some Blues songs utterly tedious).
I think there is a another kind of song, the ideal kind—where there is no privileged element, where the music neither serves the lyrics nor controls them, where words and music exist in synchrony, neither possible without the other, neither dominating in import or resonance. Or perhaps it is really not so total as that, but instead sinuous and variegated, in which sometimes the lyrics, sometimes the melodic line alternate in precedence, play off each other, take turns coming to the fore, support and carry each other to differing degrees at different points in a song.
In my own music writing practice, I have found that sometimes a series of lyrics came to me on their own, demanding a melodic expression I had to discover; on other occasions, I began humming a melody first and picking it out on the guitar, sometimes carrying it around with me for weeks or months, before finding suitable words. And sometimes the two came together, an agreeable pairing, a good marriage.