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I believe there are 3 possible main elements to a song (not minding dynamics, articulation etc):

  1. The Type of Sounds + their order & The Amount of Sounds (Vowels, Consonants & Syllables & Indefinite or Definite Pitch)
  2. The Lengths of the Sounds
  3. The Pitches

I’ve been contemplating over the different orders songwriting could be done in, and while going through the possible orders, i’ve began wondering if a song could be written “pitch first”. In other words, how would writing pitch first even work, does anybody have experience with this?

Now, i’ve never written pitch first, I primarily begin with lyrics first and then work on the lengths of the sounds and then finally the pitches. If I do use an instrument, I typically begin with a rhythm first and then work out a melody.
From my contemplating, I would imagine “pitch first” would imply mapping out the pitches that will be used with no order to them yet, no note lengths and or course no lyrics yet (the type of sounds). I could also imagine thinking of a key first and limit yourself to writing with only those notes being described as pitch first, but I’m incapable of hearing keys before a song being performed. I’m thinking even if I could write pitch first, it would be the hardest way make music anyway.

Lastly, I understand that when we are writing, more than one of these elements can be written at a time but that is not my purpose in asking this question. I’m not really much of an instrumentalist. I write lyrics, turn them into melodies and write the instrumental parts around the lyrics (chords as well). So I’m just trying to see how beginning from the opposite end of the spectrum works.

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You can absolutely write pitch first. I've done it many times. Of course music without lyrics is often written from many different starting points that are not lyrics. Even songs are sometimes written with the lyrics coming last. You can find videos of famous songwriters, including Taylor Swift, humming melodies they have written without lyrics and trying to come up with lyrics that fit the melodies.

Several times I've written melodies and then come up with the lyrics. It's VERY common for band members to write instrumental music and then the singer/lyricist will come up with lyrics and melody to fit the backing music. In this case, the key and/or tonal center is already chosen as part of the backing music, so the singer will be writing a melody to fit that tonal context.

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One could make a strong case that serial music lends itself to pitch-first composition. Starting from a tone row would be analogous to choosing a key, except that the order of pitches is predetermined.

There are also instances like Ligeti's Musica Ricercata #1, which uses only one pitch (one pitch-class, that is: A), so that would be pitch-first, too.

Aleatoric music can also be pitch first. In such a case, the composer will specify the pitches to play, but not (necessarily) their order or duration (or even when to play or what instrument).

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  • NB: Musica Ricercata is a cycle of 11 works, each with one more pitch class than the previous one, and the last uses all 12 pitch classes, which means the first one uses two pitch classes, not one. If you look, the fourth to last measure of #1 has to Ds in it, with "sfff" dynamic marking and the note, "Play note with both fingers then hold with one". I haven't upvoted because the question seems to be about writing songs with lyrics and I'm not sure if purely instrumental music is within the universe of consideration for the asker. Mar 13 at 1:45
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"For the past four years, I've been using what you call 'pitch first' when I write songs. It's like this: first, I come up with a chord progression or a melody, and then I create lyrics based on that melody. This approach can be a bit tricky because the rhythm and structure of the lyrics have to fit with the melody. But I've found it to be really effective, and I've had a lot of success with it. Another way to write songs is to work on the lyrics and melody at the same time. You can go back and forth between the two, or even improvise them simultaneously."

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    Why the quote marks? Mar 13 at 18:09

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