You encounter many terms to refer to those who make music. Most common are composers and songwriters. They do similar stuff, yet there are also inherent differences.
What’s the difference between a composer and a songwriter? A composer specifically writes the melody of a song, whereas a songwriter performs a broader role. A songwriter may focus on lyrics, melody, or both.
There’s more to it, though. Read on to learn how composers and songwriters fulfill unique roles in the modern music-making process.
What Does a Composer Do?
As we mentioned, a composer writes the melody. Traditionally, musicians from Mozart to Franz Liszt were all composers.
Why don’t we call people like Beethoven songwriters? Because classical songs were predominantly (if not exclusively) the “melody” side of music.
However, such composers occasionally wrote lyrics. For example, Mozart dabbled in lyrics with his obscure vocal piece, “Leck Mich am Arsch” (translation: Kiss my A**). However, 90% of a classical composer’s job was to write sheet music melodies.
Today, composers continue to specialize in melodies while someone else writes the words. Furthermore, composers tend to be classically trained and well-versed in music theory.
What Does a Songwriter do?
Songwriters serve a more recent musical role. Since the phonograph, artists have been able to duplicate unique singing voices via a vinyl or digital copy. Consequently, lyrics have become the norm in music-making rather than the exception.
Now rhythm, lyrics, and beat have become as fundamental as melody. A songwriter steps in to fill the gaps and create a complete song. Additionally, a songwriter tends to be a jack-of-all-trades artist (i.e., Prince).
However, some songwriters may focus on a couple of elements. For example, one may specialize in rhythm and beats while another songwriter creates the lyrics and melody.
Composers vs. Songwriters
Both composers and songwriters write music. Also, composers still exist — even outside of contemporary classical music.
Nevertheless, a songwriter is a more informal kind of artist. The definition of a songwriter is broad. Merrian-Webster defines a songwriter (a cliché reference source, we know) as “a person who composes words or music or both especially for popular songs.”
Meanwhile, the word “composer” will bring up images of violins, pianos, and black-and-white portraits of Frederic Chopin.
Ultimately, mistaking a composer for a songwriter or vice-versa isn’t a huge deal. They both write music, and most musicians aren’t grammar professors. You’ll survive in most conversations if you understand the gist:
- Composers are formal song-makers who focus on melodies.
- Songwriters are informal song-makers who dabble in everything music-related.
Can a Composer be a Songwriter?
The definition of a songwriter is loosely defined. But, again, a songwriter can focus on all or one element of music.
Thus, a composer is a songwriter by definition.
The opposite is also true. A songwriter who enjoys writing melodies and likes music theory has (knowingly or not) crossed over into composer territory.
What Does a Producer Do?
“Producer” is another term people use interchangeably with “songwriter” and “composer.” Music producers (or record producers) influence the direction of an album above anything else. They are business-minded individuals responsible for overseeing the music-making process.
While producers can create music, this isn’t a necessary part of the job. Instead, a producer gathers all the pieces needed to make music — including musicians.
Ultimately, a music producer does the same thing a movie director does. The only difference is the industry.
Music Production Today
It’s vital to note that the role of a music producer has changed significantly over the past few decades. Why?
In the 1980s, for example, music producers helped ensure that artists’ work fell in line with what record labels wanted. In a way, music producers were the middlemen who ensured both parties were satisfied.
Nowadays, artists can upload their work online through various platforms, including SoundCloud and YouTube. As a result, a record label is no longer necessary to release music to the public. Instead, musicians can upload music to streaming platforms and receive royalties.
Nevertheless, music producers still exist. But instead of being bound by record labels, producers are free to create, upload, and advertise music their way. This recent shift makes music production a more exciting field than ever.
Producers vs. Songwriters
Producers no longer need to mediate between songwriters and big record labels. Thanks to platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify, big record labels have lost a chunk of influence.
Consequently, many music producers have abandoned their role of being intermediaries in favor of acting more like songwriters.
Now, many independent musicians who write and market their songs call themselves producers. However, some prefer to stick with the term “songwriters.”
Another distinction is that producers use their technical skills to make music. In other words, a producer uses a DAW and mixers whereas a songwriter uses an instrument and microphone.
For example, electronic music artists don’t often call themselves songwriters. That’s because they rarely write lyrics or pick up an instrument. Instead, they arrange various effects on a computer to create songs.
Of course, these are loose guidelines with countless exceptions. But, ultimately, the difference between producers and songwriters has become blurred.
What Does a Lyricist Do?
We’ve covered songwriters, composers, and producers. Now, it’s time to complicate things further.
So, what does a lyricist do?
A lyricist writes lyrics. This one’s actually pretty straightforward.
Lyricists are the poets of the music world. Often a lyricist doesn’t touch melody, harmony, or anything other than words. In some cases, rhyme schemes are the closest lyricists come to anything remotely musical.
Also, you can call Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou lyricists even though they’ve never released any albums.
Nevertheless, lyricists are incredibly talented people. Creating words that resonate with audiences requires a unique set of skills that many songwriters lack.
Lyricists vs. Songwriters
So, lyricists write lyrics. This seems simple enough.
However, songwriters also write lyrics – so what’s the distinction? Songwriters can be lyricists, and lyricists can be songwriters. But as we mentioned, “songwriter” is the broadest term of them all.
Not surprising, a songwriter can be a lyricist if they specialize in creating the words in a song. A lyricist can also be a songwriter if they create melodies to accompany their prose.
Ultimately, a songwriter writes the music – lyrics and all. A lyricist writes words for poetry, music, and more.
Which is easier, composing or songwriting?
Composers will likely say that their job is more complicated. Songwriters may do the same. However, neither of them is correct.
It is impossible to assess whether songwriting or composing is more challenging, as they share many similarities. But composing may require formal training and an understanding of sheet music notation. Thus, composing is more difficult when starting from scratch.
Nevertheless, there are valid arguments in favor of songwriting being more difficult. First is the complexity of putting together several musical components. Songwriting includes making beats, writing melodies, and much more.
Granted, you don’t need to learn everything about songwriting to be a songwriter. But if you want to master songwriting, then you’re in for a trip that no composer has undertaken.
In conclusion, songwriting is easier to learn but impossible to master.
Who makes the most money off a song?
A musician’s title plays a notable role in compensation. Who gets paid the most depends on the contract. Generally, such contracts favor songwriters.
Mechanical royalties are owed explicitly to the songwriter whenever someone reproduces a music track. For example, royalties are how Spotify artists get paid. Most importantly, songwriters receive passive income. For example, an artist might be blacked out and receive payment whenever someone streams their music.
Additionally, songwriters are musical figureheads. Producers, beatmakers, and lyricists might create top hits without receiving massive recognition. Indeed, it is the songwriter who embodies the music. It is the songwriter who acquires admiration and lucrative opportunities to appear in corporate ads.
But songwriters aren’t the only ones who make money. Publishers take a cut of album sales. Furthermore, most deals require that everyone responsible for producing the music be paid for their time.
In short, there’s money to be made all around the music industry, although not everyone can achieve a seven-figure songwriter salary.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the terms in the music industry. Composers, songwriters, producers, and lyricists are some of the most common terms for musicians. Yet, despite being used interchangeably, there are distinctions between all four that make it a more complicated matter than meets the eye.
To make matters worse, people disagree about what each term means. Nevertheless, we’ve attempted to find agreeable definitions that should satisfy most.
Composers and songwriters both write music, but a composer specializes in melody and sheet music. Meanwhile, a songwriter just writes the music — beat, bassline, vocals, or whatever else you can imagine.
There are also producers, who direct musicians on what kind of sound they want. Furthermore, lyricists write the words to music and provide more profound meaning to a bunch of sounds.
So, what are you? Are you a songwriter who enjoys playing instruments and writing stuff down? Or are you a composer who is fond of classical music and music theory above all else?