What's the difference?
If you are someone who writes music, I'm sure you have been asked this question. What are the differences between songwriting and composing? Let's take a look.
The biggest difference comes down to the genre more than anything. There are a lot of things in music that vary in name depending on the genre, and the term used for music creation is no exception. For instance, if you ask a classical pianist to name a chord, they will likely give you a different version than a jazz pianist. Songwriting vs composing is kind of the same thing.
If you are working in the "pop" music world, you will generally be referred to as a songwriter. This includes pop, rock, hip-hop, country, R&B, etc., the sort of stuff you would hear on the radio.
Alternatively, if you are working in the "classical" music world you would generally be known as a composer. This is includes classical, jazz, musical theatre, opera, or sacred music. Going forward I will just use "pop" and "classical" but that will include all of the listed genres and their related styles.
What You're Doing
The reason for this split is, in my opinion, because of the amount of work you are doing with composing vs. songwriting. Generally, when composing you are working with more instruments and the music is much more layered and nuanced. Classical music can range from just a solo instrument up to 100 piece orchestras and everything in between. Think about how much time and effort has to be put in to write a piece for that many musicians. Even if you are writing a solo instrument piece, there still needs to be lots of time put in to craft the best music possible.
Generally, pop music deals with significantly less instruments. Things are different now due to the increase of technology, but typically you are dealing with maybe 10 instruments max. A lot of songwriters may just write for themselves and their guitar and that's it!
The writing style usually differs as well. In classical music you are generally working with motifs and trying to explore the different possibilities of what you can build with a small chunk of music. Whereas, pop music is generally built on repetition and very digestible phrases, so typically you will write via chord progressions or riffs. If you give a songwriter and composer the same 4 bars of music to work from, the songwriter will probably repeat it as much as possible and the composer will try to twist it around as much as they can.
Usually, if you are working with lyrics at all in classical music it will likely be poetry, sacred text, or words tailored specifically to the kind of work you are writing, such as a libretto for opera. Also, there is usually another person, or sometimes several, that will write the lyrics separately from the composer. There are some people such as Stephen Schwartz that will write their own lyrics, but usually in classical music there's a separate lyricist.
In pop music, the songwriter will often write the lyrics in addition to the music. Again, there may be a team of writers who will share responsibility or you can partner with a lyricist -- as in the case of Elton John and Bernie Taupin -- but generally a songwriter writes the whole thing.
The words themselves are usually different too. The lyrics in classical music are generally more refined, polished, or sophisticated. Often times, since part of the point is to be more accessible, the lyrics in pop songs are more off-the-cuff, simple, and raw. However, as is the case in anything, these lines can be -- and often are -- blurred.
How you're credited
Another difference is how you are credited with the piece. This includes how people talk about you in reference to the work. Composers are usually credited individually for the entire work. For instance, if you write a musical with 30 songs and transitions, and an overture, and play out music, you would be credited for the whole work. However, if a pop album has 10 songs on it, each individual one would have different credits listed, potentially with 10 different songwriting teams.
Because of this, a single songwriter can sometimes get lost in the mix and forgotten about when referencing the track. In certain cases, the artists themselves assist with the writing process and even if they don't, they will generally be given the de facto credit with maybe a well known music producer as well. If you are the third of fourth writer listed, you probably won't get too much air time.
In pop music, there are business dealings happening behind the scenes that influence who gets credited as a songwriter, so you may not have written any of the song or contributed very little and still be credited. On the flip side, you may have done 99% of the work yourself, but still need to put certain names on as part of contract requirements. Also, the line between where the songwriting stops and the producing begins is unclear, so you can sometimes get songwriting and producing credits.
⬆️ Take a look at how many people are credited on Beyonce's RENAISSANCE album. Notice how each of the 16 songs has a different songwriting team.
Contrastingly, even though there are 16 songs on the Sound of Music album, there is only one composer/lyricist listed. ⬇️
As a composer you will generally get credit for the whole work even if you didn't necessarily do it 100% alone. Sometimes there are teams or people that will assist in a big work by writing a few bars here or there or working on an entire song. This is especially true for film scores which will often have a team of underwriters. However, typically only the main composer will get credit for the whole work. (think John WIlliams or Andrew Lloyd Webber).
In summary, the lines between songwriter and composer are often blurred. However, if you are operating in the pop space, write your own lyrics, and generally use only a few instruments, you are safe to call yourself a songwriter. If you write music for larger ensembles like choirs or orchestras, write large works like operas or musicals, or write using third party words or with a dedicated lyricist, it's safe to call yourself a composer. However, with tons of innovation and genre-bending happening in the world, the definitions of songwriter and composer will continue to evolve.
Want to read more? Be sure to check out more of my blogs.