What Comes First in Songwriting: The Lyrics or the Melody?

What comes first in songwriting, the lyrics or the melody? I’ve found that anything can happen. Sometimes I start with an idea for lyrics, and other times a song begins with a melody. Sometimes I start with the chorus, other times with the beginning of the song, and still other times with the underlying chord structure. I’ve learned that there are no rules and to be open to any ideas that come my way.

A couple months ago, I was fiddling around with my guitar and was gifted with a melody. It arrived whole, but with absolutely no hint at all about the lyrics. For weeks, I was preoccupied with this melody. What was it about? What did it want to say? I wrote numerous lyrics on various themes for this melody – even going so far as to write a complete song – but none of them felt quite right.

During Passover last month, I found myself wanting to sing only liturgical  music. I felt so nourished celebrating this holiday with my entire family – my husband and children, my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and my in-laws. Between singing at our Seders and holiday meals, and going to synagogue a number of times, I was very uplifted by the music.

At our Seder, as we recited the 1,000 year-old Hebrew Nishmat prayer, which praises a God of salvation, I remembered that a year or two ago I had begun working on a tune to fit the Hebrew words for my favorite part of the prayer: “If our mouths were as full of songs as the sea, and our tongues replete with melodies like the endless waves. If our lips were filled with praise as expansive as the sky… still we could not thank You enough.”

The next day, I recited those words again in synagogue, and again they struck me. Hmmm. Might these holy words be in some way connected to the new melody I was playing with?

It turns out that they indeed were.

I present to you Still We Could Not Thank You Enough, which I adapted from a portion of the Nishmat prayer. If you belong to a house of worship of any denomination that would be interested in using this in your service, please be in touch. I would absolutely love to hear it sung in a devotional setting, where it belongs.

So, how does songwriting work for you? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments.


Head Shot Lo ResJulie Geller is singer/songwriter and speaker based in Denver, Colorado. She leads a community of creative women and teaches The Magic of You, a women’s creativity course.

What I Learned from Writing One Song a Week

I recently challenged myself to write a song a week for ten weeks based on the Torah portion from the Book of Genesis.

This was hard. And it took a lot of time.

And it was completely awesome. 

Here’s what I learned:

1. It’s Good to Experiment With Writing in Different Ways
I usually play with an idea in my head for days, weeks or months before I begin to put it to music. I didn’t have the luxury of doing that when I was writing a song a week. I would sit down in my studio and know that, within and hour, I would have to emerge with a song. It’s a different way of writing. It’s good to keep yourself on your toes and try new things. Now I have a new trick in my songwriter’s bag: writing quickly.

2. Perfection is Overrated
This is all about not being perfect and being comfortable with that. I’m never a perfectionist but it came out every more so on this project. By definition, with a project like this you are creating things that, like you and me, are not perfect. Embrace it. Who cares what people think of what you made? Seriously. NO, SERIOUSLY.

3. This is All About Getting the Creative Juices Flowing
Some of the songs I wrote are more like drafts. For example, I’m going back now to re-explore the song Put Down Your Guns Cause We Got Music. I loved the idea of that song but I didn’t really have a chance to write the lyrics the way I wanted to write them. I’ve now changed some of the lyrics and moved some things around. What I put out there initially wasn’t perfect but it got the germ of this song written and that’s the whole point. Now I’ve got some sketches that I can turn into full songs if I decide to do so later. Creativity begets creativity, so keep those creative juices flowing. 

4. Honor Your Commitments
Don’t make too many commitments but, when you do, honor them. Almost every week something came up that made it difficult to complete my song. So, I worked late at night or started at 5AM. So, I filmed a video at 6AM in my pajamas. The point is, commit to something a bit out of your comfort zone and see it through. That’s a great way to grow and expand the boundaries of what you think you can do.

5. Keep Your Eye on the Prize
No, the prize is not fame or fortune. It’s getting to practice your craft as much as possible. And, it doesn’t even matter what people think of what you create because you and I both know that the joy is in the creation itself.

6. Always Improve
My chops really improved during this process. I got to play with instrumentation every week and I grew a lot from that process. My confidence in my ability to write quickly also improved. Always strive to get better at doing whatever it is that you do. 

7. Pushing Yourself Inspires Others to Do the Same
My talented and fearless artist friend Lauren joined me for this whole journey, creating something beautiful and moving every week. Another friend of mine was so inspired by this idea that she decided to set her own ten-week goal.  When you challenge yourself, you give others permission to pursue their own dreams as well. 

Did I miss anything? Do you have anything to add? Please leave a comment below. Lo Res Head Shot

Julie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting music. She has been releasing one new music video a month since June of 2013. Find her on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

The Story Behind the Song “Hareini Mochel (I Forgive)”

Last year, a friend asked me to set part of the Bedtime Shema – an extended version of the traditional shema prayer that we say at bedtime – to music. When I looked it over carefully, the opening line jumped out at me:

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered me, provoked me, or sinned against me.
(Hareini mochel lichol mi shehichis vihiknit oti oh shechatah kinegdi)

What moved me so much about this prayer is that we are offering forgiveness to people we perceive as having hurt us throughout the day and they are not even present. We are in our beds, on our own, offering forgiveness and the people who hurt us are not even there.

What this indicated to me was that forgiveness has less to do with the one who harmed us than it has to do with ourselves. We forgive others not to let them off the hook but to allow ourselves to continue to live our lives without the burden of carrying around hatred and anger. 

I had been mulling over these words and their implication when, driving home that same week, I heard the following story on NPR:

Jennifer Thompson was raped in 1984 and she identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, and the perpetrator, who had died in prison serving time for another crime, was identified.

When Jennifer came to terms with the fact that Ronald Cotton was innocent, she said, “I knew how to be a victim of sexual violence… and now I became an offender… Fear set in and it just took hold of me, and you know, terrified that at any minute he was going to spring up behind any dark corner and want to set the record straight and, you know, hurt me or take something away from me.”

Even though some of her friends tried to convince her otherwise, she knew she had to meet Ronald.

It took two years until they met face to face. Jennifer said that, We met in a small church not far from where I’d been raped 13 years before. And as soon as he walked into the room, and I just started to cry, he just immediately gave me forgiveness. And it was the first time, truly, in 13 years that I could physically feel myself starting to heal. And oddly enough, it should be the one person that I had learned to hate so much during that time that would teach me about grace and mercy, and it was the most amazing – outside of the birth of my children, it was the most amazing experience of my life.”

I drove around listening to Jennifer’s story, crying. (You can read and/or listen to the full story here.)

Years before, I had come across The Forgiveness Project. On this website are stories of people who have been victims of heinous crimes, whose family members have been murdered, who have lived through wars – and they have all chosen to forgive their perpetrators. In the words of one woman, “They wouldn’t know if I felt hate toward them and the only person it was hurting was me.” These stories moved me deeply and made me begin to think very seriously about forgiveness. If people who had lived through the unspeakable had forgiven, it gave me hope that I could find it in my heart to forgive others for ways in which I perceived that they had hurt me. 

So, here we are in the aseret yimei teshuvah – the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – the day in which we ask God to forgive our own shortcomings and allow us to live in spite of them. This forgiveness work is real, and it’s deep and it’s very serious. And you can’t fake it. 

I know I’m still carrying some unecessary stuff around. I feel pretty clear with people I see regularly because we can deal with things as they come up. We mess up, we apologize and talk about it, and we move on. But, often I bump into someone I haven’t seen for a long time and I realize that I’m still carrying around some sort of old grudge against them. “Let go,” I gently tell myself. “It’s OK. You don’t have to carry this around any longer.”

So here’s my blessing for us all: May we each break through this week, lighten our load, let go of some old or new grudge, choose acceptance over anger, love over fear.

Shana tova,

Top Picks for Family Passover Music

Before each Jewish holiday, one way my family and I prepare is by listening to lots of music, usually while we’re cooking and getting the house ready. So, what are we spinning this Passover while we cook up the chicken soup? Here’s our list: 

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.03.19 AMElana Jagoda
Seder Song Revival
A brand new CD of mostly original tunes from this soulful singer/songwriter. One of my faves. Perfect for children and adults of all ages.



Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.05.49 AMPaul Zim 
Paul Zim’s Passover Sing-a-Long
We’ve been listening to Paul Zim’s holiday music for years. Traditional Hebrew songs with a children’s chorus. Wonderful for kids of all ages and a great way to learn the traditional repertoire. 



Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.08.31 AMA Taste of Passover 
Put some klezmer into your life! My teacher,Hankus Netsky, is the Artistic Director of this CD that features Theodore Bikel, the Klezmer Conservatory Band and musicians from the New England Conservatory. This will get you out of your chair and it even includes a recipe for perfect matzo balls! For all ages.

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