Saturday, April 21, 2018

Essential Questions To Answer Before You Finish A Songwriting Collaboration | Music Think Tank

In a music-theatre context, there are a number of questions that must be answered before any song can be completed. Often when lyricists and composers collaborate on songs for a new show, these questions may be answered unconsciously or internally by each collaborator or not at all. If one person were writing a show all by herself, that might be just fine. But in a collaboration with one or two other artists, it’s critical that everyone on the team articulate these questions together, discuss them and come to agreement on each answer. If this is done before starting work on a given song, it can save everyone a lot of extra work, frustration and other unpleasant feelings. Take the time to be just a little bit pedantic when it comes to songs you’re co-writing for a new musical and you’ll be much happier with the results.

A note about these questions. Some concern lyrics. Others concern music. And others concern both. Some composers may read a few of these and bristle at the thought of opening such questions up for discussion with a lyricist. I’d argue that while musical decisions should be the final domain of the composer, talking about such things together will likely help the collaboration work in a more strongly aligned way with the overall story being told on stage. It may not be comfortable to talk about all these things right away. But give it a try. I think you’ll find surprising results await you if you come at it with an open mind and patience borne out of knowing you’re trying something new.

These questions are questions I’ve thought to ask in my own collaborations but it is probably not exhaustive. I encourage you to add a few of your own at the bottom to make this document an even more powerful tool for your own creative process.


1. Which comes first, words or music? (In most shows there’s no hard and fast rule held throughout, the question is answered differently for different songs.)

2. What is the fundamental “action” of the song? Every moment in every piece of theatre is active. Every line of dialogue is doing something. And the same is true of every song in a musical. One or two or more characters are singing this particular song for a particular reason. Understanding and articulating that is very important. Because from the answer to this question, many other artistic choices will naturally flow. Put another way, the action answers the question “Why must this character sing this song now?” “What will change as a result of this song having been sung?”

3. Where is this song in the overall character arc of the person (or persons) singing it? In some shows some characters undergo radical change over the course of the show. A great example of this would be Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Understanding where in her arc a song sits would be key to getting the tone just right.

4. Are there structural choices that make obvious sense for this particular song? Some songs follow an easily recognizable structure such as Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Verse Chorus, to name just one. Other songs are through-composed, meaning the song continuously explores and employs new landscapes in a journey that may use repetition but not in as simple a way as standard song form. The form of a song will certainly have an effect on the way an audience receives it and how a character singing it comes out in the end. Why not make these decisions consciously, in communication with your co-author(s)?

5. What is the tonality of the song? Is it in a Major or minor key, for example? Or does it employ dissonance in a prominent way? Is the tonality of the song easily discernible? Or is it harder to pin down?

6. Does the song need an internal modulation? Or is it better off staying put in one tonal area?

7. Does the song use rhyme? And how so? Will it adhere to strict rhyming or allow a half rhymes?

8. What is the emotional tone of the song? Does it employ wit? Is it sad? Does it shift from one emotional tone to another?

9. Is the audience ahead of our character (or characters) in this song or behind them? In other words, is the audience hearing the song and shaking their heads because they understand the world of the show better than the person singing and therefore see what may be coming to knock this character off his/her sure footing? Or is the audience in suspense as the song unfolds, curious to know what is happening and how it all fits together?

10. Are there unique choices either in the linguistic style or the musical style that must adhere to a specific rule to support a given character’s unique standing in the world of the show?

11. Will this song end with a rousing bang, such that would inspire an audience to leap to their feet or should this song end in a more ambiguous or quiet way?

12. What instrumentation makes the most sense for this song? And what relationship between accompanying instruments and voice? Some songs feel as though the voice is leading the whole enterprise and the piano (or other instruments) are simply following a singer-driven journey. Others feel like there’s a vivid instrumental world created out of which a song emerges.

13. How dense should the words be in this song? Do we need a lot of language? Or is something thinner more appropriate?

14. Do we want music that cuts against the grain of the lyrics in order to suggest an inherent tension or should the music and lyrics be saying the same thing?

15. How difficult should this song be to sing? This is a question that is not asked very often. I would argue, it really does make a huge difference in how a character is perceived in a show. Take for example, Cunegonde inCandide. Her vocal gymnastics make the role tough to perform but also play an important role in setting her apart from the rest of the world of the show.


Applications are now open for Roland Tec’s next online songwriting workshop, which begins June 18th and runs through December 3rd. For more information on how to apply, visit Songwriting Workshop Song Submission


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