What are the Differences Between a Poet, Lyricist, and Songwriter?

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I’ve been known to write some poetry in my time, but I never learned how to write music or play it. I often wondered through my life, could I possibly add to a song by helping write the words for songs, and not know music? This led me to question, if I did so, would I be a poet, a lyricist, or a songwriter? 

A person can be a poet, then by learning to place words into a song appropriately, they may become a lyricist. A songwriter writes melodies or the music for a the song. Often, the songwriter does it all, but a lyricist does not write the music or melody, they simply add the words. 

So, there are similar artistic endeavors in any musical project, but they also have distinct differences. Let me explain. 

What are the Different Types of Musical Roles?

Composers write only the music and not the words. They write a wide range of music for projects that might include film, video game, theater, tv, orchestra, and songs. Again, a composer concentrates solely on the music and no lyrics. 

Songwriters are a type of composer that works on songs only. Songwriters might write both music and lyrics for a project or they might only write the music (whether that’s melody, chord progression, or both). Usually the songwriter will arrange their work, choosing instruments and vocals to go along with the melodies and chord progressions. If you are curious about the process of how songwriters writes hit music, check out this YouTube video.

Lyricists write only the words for a song or musical project – not the music. Now, they have to keep the words to the song at the proper pacing and in the proper theme of the music they are writing for. But they do not write that music. That’s what sets them apart from a songwriter.

Poets are set apart from lyricists because they write their words to be read, not sung. So even though both artists use rhymes, stanzas, specific language choices, and symbolism – the delivery is quite different. 

Now, the complicated part. Songwriters may compose the music and melody for a project while working with a lyricist on the words for the songs. Composers are most notably found in the area of movies or larger musical productions. When you’re talking songs, generally you’re going to be dealing with a lyricist and a songwriter or just a songwriter.  

What Makes a Poet Different from a Lyricist?

So where does a poet fall into this situation? Well, poets write poetry, which is to be read, not sung to a melody. Lyricists and poets are closely related. Both are trying to tell a story with words. A poet can easily become a lyricist, if they write their poetry to be incorporated into a song. The talent and skill it takes to make this transition are not as easy to engage as one might imagine.

Music is often regarded as melodic poetry. Reading poetry, seeing how artists shift the words into a song, and embracing the styles of successful poets can actually benefit a lyricist. After all, poets and lyricists and for that matter, songwriters all want to elicit specific emotions from their audience. They want to keep the attention of their listeners. 

To be a lyricist and not just a poet, there needs to be an understanding of what the songwriter or composer is trying to convey to the listener. They may need to tell a specific story or relay a specific theme. Understanding music can only help in the course of this transition. A lyricist needs to be able to write words that follow a certain rhythm and meter; words that merge with a beat and keep the emotion of the song alive.

There are factors that a lyricist or a songwriter must keep in mind that a poet has no worry over. There are practical things such as the length of the song and the character of the situation within the song. They work with other people on a project and must accept the needs of the market. Feedback will come from singers, songwriters, listeners, producers, and in some cases composers. It is the lyricist who must satisfy all of their needs with the words they write for the project. 

The language a lyricist uses is of particular importance. One’s word choices, use of symbolism, and the use of colloquialism or slang must all run in-line with the audience that is being sung to. If a songwriter and lyricist want their message to resonate with listeners, those listeners need to actually comprehend what is being said. It also helps to think of the big picture when writing lyrics to a song, so that perhaps it will still be relevant years and years from the time they were published. 

Some lyricists write for a particular genre or for a particular singer. Artists in the music industry often do not write their own material, but may use the same group of talented writers and composers that compliment their particular niche. This way, the themes, the rhyme patterns, the melodies, the wording choices? They tend to be similar overall and it’s easier to get the proper words and music to the audience. 

Therefore, moving from being a poet to a lyricist can be a limiting experience. You must write melodic words that work with music, you must write words that present the theme of what other people want, accepting their feedback, and the audience must be able to accept the message the words are delivering through verse usually sung by another person. 

The transition can be challenging, but it’s doable. Having knowledge of music or being able to play an instrument can help, but it’s not necessary. Songwriters co-write with lyricists a lot. Poets get picked up to become lyricists after live performances and also online – because of putting their art out for people to hear or see. Both artforms are about emotion, and those in the business recognize it. 

In Summary

As I discovered in researching and writing this article, there are many parallels between a poet and lyricist. This means that the ability to cross over from one to the other is not as challenging as it would be to make the transition to a songwriter, but not impossible. At the end of the day it is up to each individual to choose the best path and go for it.

If you are looking for other great articles on various music industry topics then be sure to check out my Industry page.

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.