Any great song revolves around two essential elements: the lyrics and the melody. If you're hoping to get into the music business, it's key to understand that these roles aren't necessarily done by a sole songwriter. Rather, these elements can be built by any number of roles including a composer, singer, or even instrumentalist.
Below, we'll break down the major differences between a lyricist vs songwriter so that you can have a clear understanding of which role suits you best. We'll also provide some insight behind the business of being a professional lyricist or songwriter so that you can determine whether or not it's a viable career path for your needs.
Lyricist vs Songwriter: What's the Difference?
At first glance, the roles of a lyricist and a songwriter appear to be one in the same, and at times they are. Like many things in the music industry, defining the roles of these positions can be downright confusing. We'll try to provide clarity for both positions, but remember that generally speaking, the process of songwriting can be broken down into two primary elements: lyrics and lead melody.
Lyric writing involves the written words, structure, and cadence of words set to music. A freelance lyricist might also be a vocalist, but you don't have to be a stellar singer to write lyrics though it's generally helpful. The most important skills surrounding lyric writing are having a command of language and acting as good arrangers within the context of a song.
The lead melody (not the bass parts, drum parts, or accompaniment parts) is also a major component of songwriting. This melody is played over chord progressions and is typically what someone would hum when imitating a song. Different parties may be responsible for melodies across the verses, chorus, hooks, and other parts of a song.
Generally speaking, the lyricist is focused on crafting the words within a song. It's advised that aspiring lyricists also learn how to write melodies and basic song structure. Having these additional skillsets makes it a lot easier to get job and also expands your income earning possibilities. Lyricists work closely with artists to write lyrics that resonate with the artist's chosen storylines or themes.
A singer songwriter is an artist that acts as their own lyricist as a trademark of their style-- think Bob Dylan or Neil Young.
A songwriter is a more ambiguous role than a lyricist. Some songwriters write lyrics, other provide only vocals or instrumental melodies to a piece of music. Here are some of the musical duties that may come under the broad umbrella of the songwriter:
Songwriters are often professional lyricists, but not all lyricists are professional songwriters. A songwriter might have a command of words and formal structure of cadence, rhyme, and other devices in a lyricist's toolbox.
Songwriters can also earn credits by writing the main melody, lead melody, or the topline or hook melody. In this way, it's conceivably that a producer, composer, songwriter, or any other musician could be considered a songwriter. The other components of an arrangement, like bass, chords, and drums however, are usually not factored into the umbrella of "songwriting", at least in terms of publishing credits.
How Do Songwriters Get Paid?
Unfortunately, there is no standard payment structure when it comes to compensating songwriters. Songwriters may earn money from any of the following avenues:
- Songwriting Advance: Professional songwriters are typically paid in an advance, receiving money upfront for their services. However, advances are recoupable, meaning that the amount paid out to songwriters initially is deducted from future royalty earnings.
- Royalties: Songwriters can earn a percentage of mechanical and performance royalties, collected and distributed by Performance Rights Organizations (Otherwise known as PROs)
- Master Royalties: If songwriters are lucky, they'll receive a percentage of master royalty points, allowing them to earn a percentage whenever a song is streamed or played.
- Sync Fees and Residuals: Songwriters can earn residual funds through a sample buyout or sync licensing usage for TV or film.
What you earn as a songwriter or lyricist will vary greatly from low-budget productions to high-budget studios. This is why it's so important to agree on a splits sheet (a formal agreement of royalty splits) before formally publishing a composition.
Lyricists vs Songwriters FAQ
Struggling to determine whether you're a true lyric writer or songwriter? Use these commonly asked questions and answers to help you expand your understanding as an artist.
What is the difference between a songwriter and a composer?
Composers and songwriters, although different can overlap roles from time to time. While composers are typically assigned to creating the music around the lyrics, building a melody is often considered as something worthy of a songwriting credit in the music industry. A songwriter may write song lyrics and melodies but likely won't be producing the music around it.
What percentage of royalties do lyricists get?
The percentage of royalties given to lyricists tends to vary based on the project. Royalties distribution of both the lyrics and melodies are written out on what is called a split sheet. In rare cases, lyricists may also be paid an upfront fee. A lyricist will determine their royalty percentage with the producer and artist of the song in question.
What do we call a person who writes music?
A person who writes music can be called many things-- a composer, producer, songwriter, lyricist, or even instrumentalist; each label with its own implications. Technically speaking, songwriting credits deal directly with whoever is writing lyrics and building the melody for a lead singer or instrument.
Can a songwriter be called an author?
Yes! A composer, singer, or lyricist could also be considered authors of a song depending on the roles they played in its creation. Whether you're a music composer or a traditional songwriter, your share of royalties is determined during your session throughout the songwriting process.
The roles of lyricist vs songwriter can feel pretty ambiguous, as are many aspects of the music industry. For practical purposes, just understand that royalty credits are generally given to whoever deals with the song lyrics and lead melodies. Hopefully, this guide makes it easier for you to cut through some of the everyday jargon of the music industry!