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Which Comes First – The Music or the Lyrics?

Shepherd of the Stars by Robert Sterling cover

(To listen to “Shepherd of the Stars” click here.)

Some songs are born with words and music emerging together in a fit of creativity. Others start as a lyric in search of a melody. “Shepherd of the Stars” was neither. Instead, it began as a melody in search of words.

Shepherd of the Stars by Robert Sterling cover

Sometimes I like to simply sit at the piano and improvise a chord progression to see where it leads me. In the case of “Shepherd of the Stars,” when I did this, a melody began to emerge right away – a haunting tune that combined simple linear motion with occasional surprising leaps. As is the case with a lot of my songs that begin music-first, the form that surfaced almost immediately was a classic AABA. No song form is as melody-driven as the AABA. If memory serves, the music was basically finished in a few hours time.

But the lyric – well, that was another matter.

I’m a lyricist – a pretty good one, in fact. People have been known to come to me specifically to write lyrics. And yet on several occasions in my career, I have penned complete tunes for which I could not imagine any sort of lyric. (Conversely, I have also written lyrics for which I couldn’t write a decent melody.) “Shepherd of the Stars,” though it wasn’t called that yet, was for the moment an untitled tune with nothing to say. It was half of a song.

I’ve learned that when half of a song is all I can come up with, I need to find a collaborator to help me with the other half. I know a lot of talented lyricists. In this case, I wanted to try an experiment. I knew a guy who was known for writing music, kind of a Big Deal, in fact. But I had noticed this Big Deal musician was totally under-appreciated for his ability to write lyrics. I decided I wanted this guy to take a stab at the words for my lyric-deprived melody.

I wanted Joe Martin.

Joe had published my work at Shawnee Press for some time. We had become friends through years of teaching together at his Composer Symposiums. But we had never written together. In many ways, we are something of a yin and yang. Joe is outgoing. I am more reserved. Joe is a natural performer. I prefer to be behind the scenes. Joe is a world-class pianist and I can barely play chopsticks. Let’s face it: This would be a match made in heaven!

Joe heard the tune and liked it. Because he stays insanely busy, the writing got stretched over more than a year. But it did get written, and Joe did a wonderful job capturing the moodiness of my melody with his words. I did a choral arrangement, to which Joe offered some salient input, and the end result is the anthem you can listen to here. It is useful for advent, epiphany and most general services. I wrote an evocative, lush orchestral accompaniment featuring woodwinds and strings, in addition to the piano accompaniment. You can see more about the choral anthem at

“Shepherd of the Stars” is not ever likely to become a huge choral hit. It is special sort of piece that stands apart from the crowd. I know I will be proud of it for years to come.

One of the hardest tasks in songwriting is to write a lyric for an existing tune that sounds completely natural – inevitable, even. I think Joe nailed it.

(This post is from my Spotlight Series here at

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