Musical Theatre Lyric Writing Tips for Young Playwrights, Part 2

September 24, 2021

Continued from his previous blog, Dylan Schifrin, author of All of You, The Exceptional Childhood Center and Key Change, offers further tips and insights for aspiring musical theatre writers.

Last time, we discussed a broad overview of musical theatre lyric writing, including The #1 Rule and Sondheim's Truisms. Today, we dive into how to structure lyrics—and what specifically distinguishes great lyrics from great dialogue.


"Scansion" refers to the stress patterns in a piece of writing. Syllables can either be stressed (represented by "–") or unstressed (represented by "∪").

For example, take the classic lyric, "All I want for Christmas is you":

   –  ∪ |   –      ∪ |      –           ∪ |  –   ∪ | –

ALL i WANT for CHRIST - mas      is YOU

Notice that I've included a silent stressed syllable after "Christmas." This is because, just like language, music flows in regular patterns of "stressed" notes (downbeats) and "unstressed" notes (upbeats). Good songwriters will pair downbeats with stressed syllables, and upbeats with unstressed ones.

But we're crossing more into composer territory, so I'll bring us back to lyrics with:


There are several different kinds of rhymes, which you may have come across in poetry classes:

Perfect rhymes are what they sound like: words that rhyme perfectly (e.g. "cat" and "hat").

Slant rhymes are words that almost rhyme, but not quite (e.g. "car" and "charm").

But be careful: Many rhyming words cannot be rhymed in a lyric without improper scansion. For example, "cat" and "format" are awkward rhymes because "CAT" is a stressed syllable, whereas "-mat" is the unstressed syllable in "FOR-mat." Instead, "FOR-mat" would rhyme more naturally with "DOOR-mat."

(Musical theatre purists would tell you that all rhymes should be perfect rhymes. But it's important to remember that many genres of music make frequent use of slant rhymes. What is crucial is to be deliberate: a song written with slant rhyme throughout is much better than a song written mostly in perfect rhyme with a few lazy slant rhymes thrown in.)

Other types of rhymes:

Masculine rhymes rhyme stressed syllables on strong beats (e.g. "CAT" and "HAT").

Feminine rhymes rhyme a stressed + unstressed syllable on a strong + weak beat (e.g. "A-ble" and "TA-ble").

Internal rhymes rhyme words within a single line (as opposed to standard end rhymes, which rhyme the final words of two or more lines). Internal rhymes have the effect of "speeding up" a lyric and are often used to ramp up the energy.

Why rhyme in the first place? Well, you don't have to! There's no rule about it, and plenty of songs exist that don't rhyme at all. But rhymes are useful, and not only because they sound good; rhymes lend hierarchy to the words in your lyric. When we hear a rhyming word, we subconsciously register it as more "weighty" than other words in the line.

That's why the most important word in any one line of lyrics should always be the rhyme. It's also why ending a line with an unexpected rhyme can be extra satisfying to the listener: Subverting our expectations keeps us engaged.

How to Get Started

There's no better way to learn how to write lyrics than diving right into it. Here are some exercises you can try:

Find a monologue you like—or take one you've written—and "lyricize" it by rewriting it as a song. (If you don't write music, feel free to use an existing song as a backdrop for your lyrics.) Try to preserve the narrative arc of the monologue (it may help to break it down into smaller sections that could work as verses, choruses, etc.). Good lyrics clearly show character transformation in the form of a decision, realization or change in perspective.

Next, choose an existing fictional character, or find a news article from the perspective of a real person you find intriguing. What about their story sings to you? How can you structure their journey into a song? It may help to write their experience as a monologue first, if the previous exercise felt natural to you.

Finally, create a character, set a scene and try writing an original song. Trust in yourself as a playwright to infuse your lyrics with insight, drama and emotion, and you're perfectly poised to create or collaborate on a new musical of your own.

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