In On the Job Training, Thoughts on Writing

Lessons learned from a life in music.
(#5 in a series of posts)

 “Hold On to Me”

 Twelve notes.

It was 1995. Michael W. Smith had penned a tune for Point of Grace and it needed lyrics. And the chorus had only twelve notes in it. Assuming one note per syllable, what can one say with only twelve syllables?

In the songwriting business, there is no right or wrong method to create a song, so long as it works. In my forty years of songwriting, I have written songs just about every way one can, and, in my humble opinion, the toughest job in songwriting is to write a well-crafted lyric to an existing melody.

It’s even harder when the chorus of the song has a mere twelve notes.

Point of Grace, 1995

Point of Grace, 1995

When writing words for a tune that has already been composed, the goal is simple enough: Craft a lyric that fits the tune so well the listener can’t know which came first, the words or the music. Simple. But not easy. Think about it: If I write the lyric first, I get to choose the form, the length of the phrases, and the rhyme scheme. But if I’m writing to someone else’s music, much of that has been pre-determined.

Back to 1995.

Word Records was building a multi-artist recording called, My Utmost For His Highest. They produced a track of music, written by Michael W. Smith for Point of Grace to sing on the CD. The track needed lyrics.

You read that right: They recorded an entire music track for a song that had no words. What’s more, this was no cheap writer demo. It was the full-blown master track, employing big name session musicians in a top-notch studio. Now this approach is not unusual in the pop songwriting arena, where budgets are higher and the music track is what primarily determines a song’s radio potential. But it was unusual in the CCM world at that time. Personally, I thought they might have acted somewhat in haste, recording the track without any clue as to what the song was about. But seeing as how they were asking me to write lyrics for the song, I kept that opinion to myself.

But wait – there’s more. It turned out, they had already gone through more than a dozen lyrics for the song, penned by some truly talented writers, and none had worked to the satisfaction of the producers.

Okay – so I wasn’t their first call. I wasn’t even their third or fourth call. That stung a little. But again, I kept that to myself, which was no small thing, considering I am not widely known for keeping my mouth shut. I can talk my way out of a winning situation unbelievably fast. But this time I managed to keep both my opinion and my hurt feelings to myself.

In the music business, it helps to know when to keep your mouth shut.

Michael’s music track was mellow and laid back. It had three verses (a little unusual), a bridge, and a chorus. A very short chorus. A chorus with only twelve notes. Since the verses had to lead into the chorus, I couldn’t very well tackle the verses until I figured out the chorus. And like I said – it only had twelve notes.

The French painter Henri Matisse once said, “It is only with hard work that I can give the impression of ease and simplicity.” I’ll go on record here: I concur with Henri.

Ultimately, I landed on twelve words that stood as a cogent thought, that could sustain the development of three verses and a bridge, and that could be spun around in the final chorus to a different point of view.

Following the first two verses, the words of the chorus come from God to the singer: I love you so/Won’t let you go/Hold on to me.

In the final chorus, the singer sings a variation to God: I love you so/Don’t let me go/Hold on to me.

Simple enough. Yes. Easy? No way. In fact, the lyric required a couple of days of focused writing and rewriting, much of it spent on those one dozen syllables. If they didn’t work, the song wouldn’t work. Hopefully, the end result sounds like the words were birthed simultaneously with the music. But I must leave that to the listener to decide. My job was to stick with it until the song sounded as if Smitty could have written his tune to my words.

Simple is rarely easy. Easy is rarely satisfying.

 This story has a coda. An executive with the record’s production suggested a change to the lyric – in the bridge, as I recall. What he suggested was, in my opinion, lame. It would have weakened the lyric noticeably. I refused firmly, but as politely as I could. He pointedly asked, “Are you telling me you are willing to walk away from a record that will sell 250,000 copies?” (The project ultimately sold more than 500,000 records.) I told him, “Yes. I am willing to walk away.” The executive backed down. The song was recorded as written. I got lucky. It could have just as easily become another lyric in the project’s trash bin.

It’s generally wise to be a team player.
But you still have to face yourself in the mirror every morning.

Showing 12 comments
  • Deborah Craig-Claar

    “The toughest job in songwriting is to write a well-crafted lyric to an existing melody.”

    As a perpetual work-in-progress lyricist, I agree. Tough? Yes. Objectionable? No. Here’s why.


    When the melody comes first, the composer is, indeed, making those critical decisions about form, length of phrase and possible rhyme scheme. Fine by me. Let someone else do the heavy lifting for once. Beats having to always face the blank page alone.

    Frankly, it’s nice to be second in the process occasionally. That way I’m the one who gets the satisfaction of finishing the song. Granted, mutual polishing usually occurs, but there is nothing quite like affixing the final period. Why should the composer always get that unique moment of satisfaction?

    If you happen to be working with a composer who is also a lyricist, writing lyrics to his melody significantly improves the odds that your lyrics will remain relatively intact at song’s end.

    Larry Hart said he needed Dick Rodgers’ melodies for inspiration; Alan Jay Lerner used to listen to Fritz Loewe working at the piano to come up with the idea for a song; Ira Gershwin said he would “hear” the rhymes in his brother’s melodies before he wrote a single word. These guys knew what they were talking about. With a great existing melody, you are inspired right out of the gate. You rarely have to wait as long for the muse to descend.

    One of Irving Berlin’s most famous songs goes “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.” There is a basic truth there, I think, and it is this: melody is the eternal legacy of a song. And I readily admit that, even though I am essentially a lyricist. Words are simply more temporal than a tune. If you stopped anyone on the street and asked them to spontaneously sing their favorite song, I can guarantee you they would get more notes right than lyrics. And so I humbly concede the supremacy of melody; and as we all know, with power comes position. So go ahead and write the tune first. (Just remember I’ll end up naming it. Now who controls the legacy? You can’t register “Dum-dum-de-dum…” with ASCAP.)

    • rsterling

      Anyone can see Deborah has co-written with me. She bears all the classic scars. 🙂 DCC – while all your points are well-taken (no surprise here), I am certain among all your co-writers that Point #3 is aimed squarely at me! And deservedly so.

    • Deborah Craig-Claar

      To my comrade-in-arms: I wear my battle scars with pride, actually. 🙂 That’s because the end result is – hopefully – a decent song. And sometimes the road is pretty rough. As you rightly said: it ain’t easy. But it is always worth the journey.

      Putting the metaphors and smiley faces aside, let me say to your readers: Robert Sterling wants only one thing from the collaborative process, and that is the best song that can be written. Period. And no other apologies or qualifications are needed.

      Actually my “Point #3” isn’t so much aimed at Robert in a personal way, but at a situation that is becoming (I believe) more common in the songwriting profession. And that is when a songwriter is both a lyricist and a composer. Like Robert. What happens when that songwriter elects to only exercise one of his/her roles and work with someone else? How difficult is it to “turn off” the other role – or do you? Well-known composer-lyricists have successfully (we assume) abandoned their solo writing roles to write with others, filling only the composer or lyricist shoes: Stephen Sondheim, Jimmy Webb, Stephen Schwartz, Rupert Holmes – to name a few. But are there creative “boundaries” that naturally emerge and therefore should be observed when you take on the role of composer or lyricist – especially when your new collaborator is not a composer-lyricist like you? I recognize pop songwriting is different than musical theatre, but at the end of the day, a song is a song.

      Robert, you have written with so many talented co-writers over the years; some are composer-lyricists like yourself (Chris Machen and Lowell Alexander come to mind immediately) and others are exclusive composers (like Michael W. Smith, mentioned in your blog here) or lyricists (like John Parker [see previous blog] or Karla Worley [see previous reply to this blog] or Claire Cloninger.) Do you consciously write differently according to role – yours or your collaborator? Should you? Can you? (Rhetorical questions: meant for discussion, not interrogation. 🙂 )

      And for aspiring songwriters who might be reading this: If you consider yourself an exclusive composer or exclusive lyricist – do you believe you will have a more successful songwriting collaborative experience by pairing with a partner who exclusively fills the other role – or with someone who can perform both roles? Is it a question you have ever asked a potential collaborator? Should you? Can you?

    • rsterling

      Deborah raises some great questions – probably worthy of their own post. But if any of you readers have thoughts, let’s hear them. For now, I will consider them rhetorical. 🙂

  • Karla Worley

    As you well know, Rob, I’m a lyricist who is lost without a melody. And my work melodies are awful. So let’s tell them the secret method I used when working with you often. I would find an existing song that had the style and structure and tone we needed, and I would use its melody, writing my lyric to fit it. Then I would give the lyric to Rob without telling him what song I’d used for my work melody. It was always fascinating to me to see how the lyrics fell in completely new ways, set to his melody.

    If you’re a lyricist, I’d recommend you sharpen your skills by using this method as an exercise. We don’t always get to sit in the room together and create the song.

    • rsterling

      Everything Karla wrote is true except for the part about her work melodies being awful. One of the prettiest tunes I ever worked with was one of her work melodies.

  • John Parker

    I like what DCC says in #4. I find a well-crafted melody writes its own lyric. On the rare occasion I am asked to write lyrics for a pre-existing melody, the general concept appears almost immediately. Then it’s all about syllabic stress and making things rhyme.

    Thanks for sharing this post Robert. Very interesting discussion platform.

    • rsterling

      You are a better man than I, John Parker. Wordless melodies take me a while to figure out what they should say. More important you’ve touched on a two Universal Truths of songwriting: 1) Syllabic stress (AKA “scansion” or “prosody”) is hugely important for writing lyrics that sing naturally. (“Sing it the way you say it.”) 2) The shape of a melody often dictates the rhyme scheme, and to ignore it is almost always a mistake.

  • Monte Garrett

    Isn’t Rupert Holmes the Pina Colada Song guy?

    • rsterling

      Yes! But he is also “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” guy among lots of other very cool projects. He is a true Renaissance man: composer, lyricist, librettist, novelist. “The Pina Colada Song,” which is a very clever and well-crafted thing, is the sort of surprise hit every songwriter longs for: One that will pay a lot of bills.

  • Monte Garrett

    I thought so … and I promise, I didn’t even look it up! Another amazing example of adding lyrics to existing music, in my opinion, is Mitchell Parish’s words to Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” — I did have to look that one up! Among Parish’s other texts … Star Dust, Sweet Lorraine, and Moonlight Serenade. I imagine he was able to pay his bills!

    • rsterling

      haha. Yes! I would think so, too. The lyric to “Sleigh Ride” is spectacularly clever – made more so by the fact it was written after the music, which was designed to paint a very specific orchestral picture.

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