Oscar Hammerstein II on Songwriting

oscar-hammerstein-iiSingers, songwriters, lyricists and composers all have something to learn from one of the great lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960). He collaborated on a huge number of well known musicals, winning 8 Tony Wards and 2 Oscars along the way. Some of his collaborators were Jerome Kern, (Showboat) Vincent Youmans, Rudolf Friml, Richard A. Whiting and Sigmund Romberg, and Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma, The King and I, South Pacific, Carousel, State Fair, Sound of Music). In 1949, he wrote a wonderful essay, now considered a classic, called ‘Notes on Lyrics’ (which can be found in Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II edited by his son William Hammerstein in 2002, pp. 3-48). Having read the essay and made my own notes on it, I reordered them into categories to help understand Hammerstein’s way of thinking about his craft. Here is the result.

Work ethic and personal standards

  • 11 “Any professional author will scoff at the implication that he spends his time hoping and waiting for a magic spark to start him off. There are few accidents of this kind in writing.”
  • 12 “A term like ‘inspiration’ annoys a professional author because it implies, in its common conception, that ideas and words are born in his brain as gifts from heaven without effort. All who write know that writing is very, very hard work. Most of us do some work every day. Some get up early in the morning, as I do, and go straight to their studies as other men go to their business offices. Some writers prefer working at night and work very late, but all of us are trying to write something nearly all the time. Nobody waits to be inspired.”
  • 27 “…every song that has a long life says something fundamental, and says it in an attractive way musically and lyrically. Every song of this kind requires little effort to sing or listen to. A song that requires little effort to sing or listen to is usually the result of great effort on the part of its creators.”
  • 29 “The refrain [of ‘When I grow too old to dream’, music by Sigmund Romberg] lyrically consists of eight lines. It took me three weeks to write them.”
  • 33 “’Songs just come to me’, many people tell me. If I met a man with just one song, I would be more interested in him. I believe that anyone who stated sincerely what was deep in his heart could not only write a song, but could quickly get it published because it would be sure to be a good song. What actually happens in the case of practically all amateur writers is that they are imitating other men’s songs.”
  • 33-4 “[amateurs] don’t spend enough time on each manuscript. They submit songs in their first draft. They don’t go over them painstakingly as professional writers do, and they don’t n the first instance dig it up out of their own brains and hearts.”
  • 34 “The basic rules are always the hardest ones to observe, even though they seem the easiest. No beginner on the golf course or the tennis courts questions the good sense of his first lesson when he is told to keep his eye on the ball. This seems such an obvious thing to do, and yet no matter how many years you play these games your chief mistake remains taking your eye off the ball.”
  • 42-3 “Like most young writers, I had a great eagerness to get words down on paper. He [Otto Harbach] taught me to think a long time before actually writing.”
  • 43 “He [Otto Harbach] taught me never to stop work on anything if you can think of one small improvement to make.”
  • 44 “I absorbed his [Jerome Kern’s] habit of being painstaking about very small things. I was surprised at first to find him deeply concerned about details which I thought did not matter much when there were so many important problems to solve in connection with writing and producing a play. He proved to me, eventually, that while people may not take any particular notice of any one small effect, the over-all result of finickiness like his produces a polish which an audience appreciates.”
  • 45 “I assumed always that someday, somebody might sing even an opening chorus so that it could be understood and, therefore, the words had better be good.”
  • 45 “This is a very important thing for writers to remember. You never know when you will be found out if your work is careless.”
  • 46 “When you are creating a work of art, or any other kind of work, finish the job off perfectly.”

Write from personal conviction and experience

  • 9 “that inner confidence people feel when they have adopted the direct and honest approach to a problem.”
  • 12 “Most bad fictional writing is the result of ignoring one’s own experiences and contriving spurious emotions for spurious characters.”
  • 20 “The longer I write, the more interested I become in expressing my own true convictions and feelings in the songs I write.”
  • 27 “A great many compositions which achieve temporary popularity on the radio are shallow and trivial, but every song that has a long life says something fundamental, and says it in an attractive way musically and lyrically.”
  • 30 sometimes instinct may be a truer guide than reason
  • 34 “The most important ingredient of a good song is sincerity. Let the song be yours and yours alone. However important, however trivial, believe it. Mean it from the bottom of your heart, and say what is on your mind as carefully, as clearly, as beautifully as you can. Show it to no one until you are certain that you cannot make one change that would improve it. After that, however, be willing to make improvements if someone can convince you that they are needed.”
  • 40 “We start our play when the curtain rises. A much better idea, I think. The very existence of the ‘icebreaker’ [song] indicates a lack of integrity in the musical comedy writing of those days.”

Choice of words

  • 20 “A rhyming dictionary, however, should not be used as a supplement to one’s own ingenuity, and not a substitute for it. I do not open mine until I have exhausted my own memory and invention of rhymes for a word. Attractive combinations of words to make double or triple rhymes are not found in rhyming dictionaries, nor are modern words or colloquialisms which can be used with humorous effect in a song. A rhyming dictionary is of little use and may, in fact, be a handicap when one is writing a song which makes a feature of rhyming.”
  • 21 “If one has fundamental things to say in a song, the rhyming becomes a question of deft balancing. A rhyme should be unassertive, never standing out too noticeably. It should, on the other hand, not be a rhyme heard in a hundred other popular songs of the time, so familiar that the listener can anticipate if before it is sung. There should not be too many rhymes. In fact, a rhyme should appear only where it is absolutely demanded to keep the pattern of the music. If a listener is made rhyme-conscious, his interest may be diverted from the story of the song. If, on the other hand, you keep him waiting for a rhyme, he is more likely to listen to the meaning of the words.”
  • 22 repeat words “for the sake of musical continuity and design”
  • 22 command “attention and respect from a listener”
  • 22 help the singer “concentrate on the meaning of the words”
  • 22 match words and phrase structures [like Shakespeare]
  • 23 “the job of the poet is to find the right words in the right place, the word with the exact meaning and the highest quality of beauty or power. The lyric writer must find this word too, but it must be also a word that is clear when sung and not too difficult for the singer to sing on that note which he hits when he sings it.”

 Relationship between words and music

  • 3 “There is, as a matter of fact, no invariable or inevitable method for writing songs. Sometimes the words are written first, sometimes the music.”
  • 7 “If one has a feeling for music – and anyone who want to write lyrics had better have this feeling – the repeated playing of a melody may create a mood or start a train of thought that results in an unusual lyric.”
  • 14 “Almost all composers have a reservoir of melodies which come to them at different times and which they write down in what they call a sketchbook. When they start work on a new musical play, they play over these previously written melodies …”
  • 23 “After rhyming, I would place next in importance a study and appreciation of phonetics. Some words and groups of words that look beautiful in printed poetry are unavailable to one who is writing lyrics to be sung to music. There is an inexorable mathematics in music – so many measures in a refrain, so many beats in a measure, and they cannot be ignored. There is rhythm and tempo, and its continuity must be unbroken. The concessions with which a melody can favour words are limited. The larynxes of singers are limited. They must be given a chance to breathe after a certain number of words have been sung, and if they are building up to a high note at the finish, they must be given a good deep breath before they attack it. Both the lyric writer and the composer must worry about these things. If a song is not singable, it is no song at all.”
  • 24 “temperamental defiance [by the lyricist] is self-defeating because no word, however fine and lofty and exact its meaning may be, is a good word in a song if it is difficult to sing.” “I believe ‘What’s the use of Wonderin’?’ was severely handicapped because of the final word, ‘talk’. The trouble with this word is the hard ‘k’ sound at the end of it.”
  • 26 “In all cases you will find open vowels used and no hard consonants on high notes. The rule is not, of course, invariable and you will find freak endings, falsetto endings and dramatic endings, wherein the composer and the singer humour the line so that it can be sung without recourse to a conventional vocal climax.”

Artistic and professional collaboration

  • 16 “It is not at all unlikely that Dick [Richard Rodgers] will give me valuable lyric ideas and I, on the other hand, frequently contribute important suggestions for the music. I don’t mean to imply that I give him ideas for melodies. I have not melodic gift whatever, but I have a feeling for the treatment of a score, ideas for its structure.”
  • 16-17 “the quick reaction you can get from your collaborator which helps you throw out bad ideas quickly and sustains your confidence in good ideas so that you go ahead.”
  • 47 “Collaboration is the biggest word in the theatre. It is the most important element in theatrical success.”
  • 47 “To get along in theatre you must enjoy working side by side with other people. You must be willing not only to give your best to them but to accept their best and give them the opportunity of adding their efforts to yours to their full capacities.”

Are there any rules?

  • 7 “There is in all art a fine balance between the benefits of confinement and the benefits of freedom. An artist who is too fond of freedom is likely to obscure his expression. One who is too much a slave to form is likely to cripple his substance. Both extremes should be avoided, and no invariable laws or methods should be obeyed. In our collaboration Mr [Richard] Rodgers and I have no definite policy except one of complete flexibility. We write songs in whatever way seems best for the subject with which we are dealing, and the purposes of the song in the story which we are telling.”
  • 19 a character’s self-analysis (like Jud in ‘Lonely Room’ in Oklahoma), works if it is emotional and not cerebral
  • 19 “I am sure of this one thing, that the song is the servant of the play, that it is wrong to write first what you think is an attractive song and then try to wedge it into a story.”
  • 25 “Now, every once in a while you should try to break rules, to test them and see if, indeed, they are breakable. Sometimes you fail.”
  • 25 “There is nothing wrong with pulling applause. No matter how much an audience enjoys a song, it likes to be cued into applause. It likes to be given a punctuation which says, ‘There, now it’s over and we’ve given you our all, and now is exactly the right time for you to show your appreciation.””
  • 27 “Lest, at any point, I seem to be laying down rigid rules, let me acknowledge quickly that there are no such things in my craft. Some of our most successful compositions stray far beyond the narrow borders that restrict the well-made refrain.”
  • 28 “Common sense solutions to normal problems are the first thing to master.”
  • 35 “Get the right words and the right notes down on paper and, in some way, your song will reach the public. Publishers are looking for good songs. They often make mistakes and reject good ones and accept bad ones, but I do not believe that all the publishers will ever reject a really good song. Somebody will appreciate its quality. If a publisher doesn’t, some record company will.”

Postscript

  • 36 “Everyone is kicked around during apprentice years, and in his fear and ignorance makes silly blunders and does silly things of which he is ashamed later. If every successful man were to confess his past errors, he could do a great service to those young people who are trying to follow in his footsteps.”

You can buy ‘Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II’ by clicking below:

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