Songwriting 101: What makes a good lyricist?
Updated: May 17
Here at From Score to Stage, we spend a lot of time analyzing the properties of musical scores, taking note of the various musical forms utilized by composers to enhance the theatrical experience. Let's not forget, though, the flip side of the coin: the lyrics. Writing lyrics is no easy feat. In fact, it's far trickier than one might suppose. But what makes a good lyric? And how can a lyric affect the actor or audience's perception of a character? Let's take a look at one particular artist's work to see if we can identify the markers of outstanding lyrics. And truly, who better to teach us than Stephen Sondheim?
Sondheim has long been considered one of the greatest masters of lyric composition. Throughout his body of work, Sondheim displays an incomparable attention to detail. His lyrics are meticulously thought out, with consideration paid to social class, period, setting, and above all character. If you can get your hands on a copy of Sondheim's Finishing the Hat or its companion Look, I Made a Hat, you can get a sense for the painstaking thought process that goes into each and every turn of phrase. One example that comes to mind is the incredible effort that went into choosing an address for Johanna and Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd. Anthony references the name of Johanna's street in "Ah, Miss" with the lyric, "Who would sail to Spain for all it's wonders, when in Kearney's Lane lies the greatest wonder yet?" I won't include the entire story here (and truly, if you haven't already I highly recommend taking a look at Finishing the Hat), but apparently settling on this one insignificant lyric involved a painstaking review of London street maps. Addresses ending in Street were rejected due to poetic meter and the need for a phrase with an accent on the third syllable. Roads were too middle class and Mews too rustic. Unable to find a Lane in London that met with his approval, he finally invented the fictional Kearney's Lane. All that effort for a single lyric. As Sondheim explains, "God is in the details." 1
Sondheim's attention to detail is certainly unmatched. That dedication to finding the perfect turn of phrase is one indicator of excellent lyric writing. Now let's take a look at three more lyrics, all taken from Sondheim's 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The entire score for A Little Night Music is brilliant, but these three lyrics in particular can teach us quite a bit about the markers of a good lyricist. Let's dive in.
The song "Later" serves as our introduction to Henrik, a melancholy seminarian who turns to his cello in moments of distress. (Henrik is heaps of fun.) His father Fredrik has recently married Anne, a naive young woman who is, in fact, two years younger than her new stepson. At the beginning of the show, Henrik is depressed. It is a perpetual source of frustration for him that he is constantly dismissed by his father, by Anne, even by the maid Petra. There are a number of excellent lyrics in "Later" — I've always appreciated his witty observation that "it's intolerable being tolerated" — but my absolute favorite line of the piece comes at the very end. He sings:
How can I wait around for later?
I'll be ninety on my deathbed
And the late, or rather later,
Does anything begin?
I adore the wordplay here. "Later, Henrik" is a constant refrain in the Egerman household. That Henrik takes the phrase and twists it to a comparison with his death ("The late, or rather later, Henrik Egerman") is incredibly clever. Sondheim punctuates this skillful turn of phrase with a musical beat, a brief pause in the meter before Henrik adds the final phrase. This gives the audience a chance to really appreciate the cleverness of the line. The entire piece lands in a satisfying way because of this one dramatic beat. Consequently, "The late, or rather later, Henrik Egerman" teaches us an important principle of lyric composition. Good lyrics are clever.
For our next lesson in lyric composition, let's turn to Act II of A Little Night Music. "The Miller's Son" is a solo turn for Petra, a character who is sidelined for much of the show. But boy, does Petra get her moment to shine here. Petra uses this opportunity to reflect on sex, relationships, and her future as she envisions her life were she to marry the miller's son, the businessman, or the Prince of Wales. Take a look at the lyrics at the beginning of each verse.
I shall marry the miller's son
Pin my hat on a nice piece of property.
Friday nights, for a bit of fun,
We'll go dancing.
I shall marry the businessman:
Five fat babies and lots of security.
Friday nights, if we think we can,
We'll go dancing.
Or I shall marry the Prince of Wales:
Pearls and servants and dressing for festivals.
Friday nights, with him all in tails,
We'll have dancing.
There are obviously quite a few structural parallels in the composition of these lyrics, but what I love here are the subtle differences. Consider the distinction between "Friday nights for a bit of fun," "if we think we can," and "with him all in tails." Petra has provided a vivid mental picture of her imagined life in each of these scenarios, and the change in circumstance from verse to verse provides us with a wealth of information. For example, consider the subtext built into the phrase "if we think we can." Petra envisions a life of frugality, a life where pleasures are few and far between with her imagined husband, the businessman.
What comes next is even better. Sondheim tweaks the lyrics just a bit from "We'll go dancing" in the first two verses to "We'll have dancing" in the third. It's such a small adjustment and yet it changes the context of the entire phrase. A lesser lyricist may have kept it at "We'll go dancing" for all three verses and the audience would have been none the wiser. It's not as though it's a bad lyric when it's written that way. But Sondheim is not the average lyricist. He understands the power of the text and chooses each word with the utmost care. There is a world of difference between going dancing and having dancing! And thus, we've learned another valuable lesson. Good lyrics are precise.
Finally, let's take a look at "Every Day a Little Death," which to my mind, is one of Sondheim's best works. In a brilliant score, it's one of those standout, unforgettable moments — an even more impressive feat when you consider that this is a relatively quiet moment in the greater context of the show. "Every Day a Little Death" is not as jubilant as the stunning act closer "A Weekend in the Country" nor is it as funny as "You Must Meet My Wife" or as thrilling as "The Miller's Son." This is a number that deals with the quiet bitterness of two women who are unhappy in their marriages. Charlotte, in particular, is struggling. She is aware that her husband is having an affair with another woman, but she cannot stop loving him. Ultimately, it is the lyrics that make this number so compelling. Take a look at the excerpt below:
Every day a little death,
In the parlor, in the bed,
In the curtains, in the silver,
In the buttons, in the bread.
Everyday a little sting
In the heart and in the head.
Every move and every breath,
And you hardly feel a thing,
Brings a perfect little death.
First, let's acknowledge the double meaning of the phrase "little death." La petite mort, or the little death, is a commonly acknowledged euphemism for sexual orgasm. Used in the context of A Little Night Music, the phrase carries dual significance. Charlotte reflects on the bitterness of her dying relationship with her husband while still recognizing how her love for him, or perhaps her physical attraction to him, prevents her from leaving him. ("I'm before him on my knees and he kisses me. He assumes I'll lose my reason and I do.")
The lyrics that follow are some of Sondheim's best. Charlotte paints a picture of domesticity — parlor, curtains, buttons, bread. These are the trappings of marital life, but Charlotte finds no solace here, only death. What I love about these lyrics is how simply they convey the emptiness Charlotte feels. This is not some overwrought text in which she waxes poetic on her failing marriage. The images are simple but they perfectly capture the character's quiet anguish. There is no joy in the domestic picture Charlotte paints, and in that moment we in the audience come to understand her struggles. In terms of lyric composition, there are two great lessons to be learned here. First, some of the best lyrics are the simplest. Good lyrics can convey a great deal of emotion in a few carefully chosen words. And second, good lyrics are moving. The best lyricists are successful because of their ability to use words to elicit an emotional response from the audience.
For the aspiring lyricist, there is truly no better master to study than Stephen Sondheim. We don't have nearly enough time today to cover the brilliance of his entire body of work, but even a cursory glance can give us a good sense for his impeccable skill as a lyricist. Above all else, Sondheim exhibits a meticulous attention to detail — every image, every rhyme, every turn of phrase is carefully crafted. As he likes to say, "God is in the details."
1. Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 341-342.