As opposed to starting with a poem or lyrics and crafting a melody and musical composition around these words, the phonetics first method of songwriting prioritizes the melodic idea.
During the phonetics first process, the musician, while playing his or her instrument, might naturally hum or sing a melody that comes to mind. The musician plays the music on the instrument repeatedly, and slowly the melody takes form.
When the melody has arrived at a point of structure, inevitably, so too have certain syllables attached to certain notes that the musician has been humming or singing. These syllabic utterings become the basis for some of the lyrics the musician might pen to the melody.
Famous Artists and the Method
Reggae superstar Bob Marley was allegedly a proponent of the phonetics first method of songwriting, among other methods. Bob is said to have liked rising early to write songs—at least in the later stages of his life—because, in the morning, his voice possessed a gravely tone which Bob preferred when coming up with melodies.
Grunge icon Kurt Cobain was also a phonetics first songwriter. Oftentimes, Kurt would write lyrics in haste just before the recording or performance of a song. However, the melodies of his vocal performance had already been set in stone from his experience humming or singing along to his guitar during the writing of the song.
Bob Dylan—and many folk artists influenced by him—often begin with words first, and craft melody second, which represents the antithesis of the phonetics first method.
Many of the greatest songwriters are not limited to one method or another, but rather experiment with all different forms of songwriting; Marley, Cobain, and Dylan are certainly among this group.
Why Phonetics First?
Many songwriters and music experts believe that the main attractive element to a song is its melody, as opposed to its words or lyrical content. Believers in this melodic attraction might claim that music fans singing along to the words, “We will rock you!” is as much a result of the melody supporting the syllables that make up the words, “we will rock you,” as it is a function of the meaning of those words.
In essence, sound and melody are what matters, not lyrical content, say phonetics first proponents.
In reality, lyrical content is important, and no one has proven whether or not one method of songwriting is more effective than another.