Sibelius's final years of study (1887-89) at the Helsinki Music Institute under the guidance of Martin Wegelius seem to have inspired him to compose songs. According to Robert Keane, Sibelius started to draft songs towards the end of 1887, apparently at the suggestion of his teacher, for a publication to be called Det sjungande Finland (Singing Finland). The first song Serenad (Serenade), composed for a poem of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, was completed and published in the work in question as early as January 1888. The place of Serenad in Sibelius's development as a composer of songs is important in several senses: it is the first known song by Sibelius and it was his first published work. In addition, it was based on a text by the Finnish national poet J. L. Runeberg. In Sibelius's development as a composer of songs this poet was to become more important than any other writer.
During the years 1888-89 he completed another three songs, none with an opus number. In the summer of 1888 in Loviisa he wrote the small song En visa. (Sibelius gave the name Baeckman as the writer of the text, but we have no further information about either the writer or the text.) Orgier, which is based on a text by the Pietist priest and poet Lars Stenbäck, is from the winter of 1888-1889. In accordance with its name, Orgies describes a bacchanal but ends with repentance. The rhythm of the song brings to mind Don Giovanni's aria "Finch'han dal vino". The third song, written at the beginning of 1889, was based on Viktor Rydberg's ballad Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph). Later the composer would write an orchestral ballad (1894) inspired by the same poem, a melodrama based on the ballad (1895) and a piano arrangement (1895) of the last episode of the ballad. However, the only common factor between the orchestral ballad and the solo song is Rydberg's text: the song Skogsrået follows the tradition of German lied, and has no musical points of contact with later works.
When Sibelius went to Berlin to study in 1889 he received as a farewell gift from Wegelius a collection of Runeberg's poems, and he soon started to draft solo songs to Runeberg's texts. Likhet is the last of the songs without an opus number from this early period: it was written in Vienna in the autumn of 1890. Sibelius was now also working on other Runeberg songs. These were published as a complete collection in 1892, under the title 7 sånger af Runeberg i musik satta af Jean Sibelius. Later (in 1905) these songs were given an opus number (op. 13). The collection presents most of the song types in Sibelius's output. Under strandens granar (no. 1) exemplifies the type of song in which the composer uses grand gestures. Here, lyrical sequences alternate with a dramatic recitative. In the piano part we hear tremolos which aim at an orchestral effect - one of the characteristic pianistic devices in Sibelius's songs. In the lyrical and elegant song Kyssens hopp (no. 2) we hear impressionistic tone painting, while the songs Hjärtats morgon (no. 3) and Drömmen (no. 5) have suggestions of folk music in them - the latter even starts with a Kalevala-like melody. Interestingly, these are the only songs of Sibelius that have such obvious references to the Karelianism of the 1890s.
The eulogy to love and youth Våren flyktar hastigt (op. 13 no. 4, 1892) sets up a lively dialogue between the vocal-line and the piano. Till Frigga (no. 6) starts from an unassuming beginning with a focus on small details, but it moves to a tableau of great passion and exoticism. A feature of this song is the varied and colourful texture of the piano part. Jägargossen (no. 7) continues the German tradition of hunting songs in the spirit of Schubert and Wolf. Sibelius wrote three other songs around this time: Se'n har jag ej frågat mera (words by Runeberg); also Sov in! and Fågellek (both to words by Karl August Tavaststjerna). He would later include these in his opus 17