What comes first, a song’s melody or its lyrics? That’s a chicken-or-egg question.
Among famous songwriting duos, the Gershwin brothers took a common approach: George wrote the melody and gave it to Ira, who set it to words. The team of Frederick Loewe (composer) and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) followed the same pattern. But when Lerner worked with Burton Lane on the 1965 Broadway production On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Lane wrote the melodies for the songs after Lerner came up with the lyrics.
Whether written before or after the melody, lyrics often express what we find difficult to say in everyday prose; they heighten the emotional impact of a song. But not all lyrics are poetic. Composer Vincent Youmans wrote a bouncy melody to include in the 1924 musical comedy No, No Nanette, and insisted that Irving Caesar put words to it immediately. Caesar complied by writing “dummy lyrics,” so the two could work out the song’s rhythm and rhyme that night. In just a few minutes, “Tea for Two” emerged. And although the dummy lyrics were supposed to be temporary, Youmans liked them so much, he refused to let Caesar change them later.
Paul McCartney used dummy lyrics when he wrote a song he first called “Scrambled Eggs.” The melody came easily, but the right words took a while. In the meantime, McCartney used placeholder lyrics: “Scrambled Eggs/Oh, my baby how I love your legs.” Eventually, “Yesterday” emerged. (I’m not sure I would have believed this story if I hadn’t come across this interview.)
Lyricist Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) sometimes wrote a dummy tune for his lyrics, as a stand-in until the composer wrote the real melody. He didn’t want to wait to hear how his written words sounded when sung.
Which element etches a song in our memory—its melody or its lyrics? Dorothy Hammerstein once famously weighed in, when a party guest neglected to recognize her husband’s contribution to the music of Showboat. Here’s how Dylan Jones tells the story in The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music:
… when somebody remarked that Jerome Kern had written “Ol’ Man River,” the wife of Kern’s lyricist Oscar Hammerstein interrupted sharply. “Indeed not,” she scolded. Jerome Kern wrote ‘dum dum dum-dum.’ My husband wrote “Ol’ Man River.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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