Gene Lees on lyric writing

younggeneleesGene Lees (1928-2010) was a lyricist, singer, music critic, biographer and journalist. One of his most notable successes as a lyricist was his English translation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’, which became ‘Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars’, recorded by greats such as Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. He also wrote lyrics for the French singer Charles Aznavour. In 1987, he put together Modern Rhyming Dictionary A Practical Guide To Lyric Writing For Song (Cherry Lane Music), for which he wrote an extensive introduction called ‘How To Write Lyrics’. I have made notes on this section of the book, and reproduce them here, unedited. (The comments in square brackets are extra thoughts of my own that I added to the notes.)

Foreword (Alan & Marilyn Bergman)

  • “the exacting task of lyric writing in not only writing words that fit the music but give singers a chance to make effortlessly beautiful sounds. He [Gene Lees] makes clear the rules that govern the craft are not arbitrary. Lyrics that observe the natural rhythms and accents of speech are a pleasure to sing. Pure rhymes are a pleasure to hear.”

1. Some General Principles

  • 3 When you’re a songwriter and people hear your songs, “People memorise your thoughts. Playwrights and novelists rarely have that experience.”
  • 3 “But at the time you are actually doing the writing, which is a lonely business – all writing is lonely – the chief thrill is that of craftsmanship, in and of and for itself. … The lyric is the most exquisitely difficult literary form of them all. It is much more difficult to write lyrics well than it is to write poetry.”
  • 3-4 “If the poet wants to spring his rhythms to express a thought, if he wants to insert an extra syllable, he usually can do so without violating the integrity of the line. Even within the discipline of the iambic pentameter in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, he had the liberty to shift the stresses within the lines when it suited his purposes, a liberty the lyricist does not have – not, that is, if he is practising the craft at its highest levels. You will, of course, encounter only too many examples of the craft practised at the lower level.”
  • 4 “it becomes appoint of pride with a really skilled lyricist not to tamper with the melody”
  • 5 “Radio has no interest in music. It is in the advertising business. The record industry has no interest in music. It is in the business of selling pieces of plastic. It is a gigantic machine, almost entirely owned now by international conglomerates, whose only purpose is to accrue profits. It is indifferent to what is on its plastic discs, except insofar as it induces the undiscriminating to buy them. It virtually ignores the discriminating audience because the undiscriminating are so much more numerous. That they are so numerous may be attributed to several factors, although the schools must bear some of the blame. The teaching of English has declined sadly – disastrously, some would say. It is not only that our communications complex, which includes both the school system and the mass media, has produced a generation of lyricists who are only rudimentarily literate; it has created an audience of millions who would not recognise the excellent on encountering it.”
  • 5 “the highest standard of lyric writing has been set by the theatre”
  • 5 “Every artist begins by imitating the masters – or at least does if he has any brains. Eventually, one begins to understand what the masters did, and why, and grasps the technique itself.”
  • 6 “to ignore the work of one’s predecessors is to waste a lot of time discovering for yourself what others have already learned.”
  • Lyricists to study: Richard Rodgers, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, John Mercer, Howard Dietz, Sheldon Harnick, Alan J Lerner, EY ‘Yip’ Harburg, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin, Tom Lehrer, Carolyn Leigh, Jake Thackray

2. About Rhyme

  • 8 – a lyric doesn’t have to rhyme
  • 8 “These two factors alone, the musical effect and the reinforcement of memory that rhyme provides, make it a useful device. There is a third: the very search for a rhyme, as Goethe noted, leads the mind in fresh directions of exploration – though it can lead to clichés such as moon and June if the writer is lazy.”
  • Masculine rhyme (final stress)
  • Feminine rhyme – both syllables rhyme, penultimate stresss
  • 3 rhyme and 4 rhyme
  • [stressed syllables must rhyme, and so must any after them]
  • 11 Charles Aznavour “in practice, we end up using the same rhymes over and over …. The trick is to find a fresh way to get to them.”
  • 11 Enjambement rhymes work only in humorous songs
  • 11 “The lyrics of a trite writer are predictable. Those of the ingenious and inventive one are not.”
  • 11 “if you can avoid its use [the use of the word ‘love’] in a love song, you will probably find that the song has been rendered more subtle and original.”

3. More About Rhyme

  • 12 “Rhyme is the repetition of the stressed sound that terminates a line of poetry or lyrics, with the proviso that the consonant preceding it must differ. There are vowel rhymes, such as so and go, which we might term open rhymes, and rhymes in which the vowel is followed – stopped, in effect – by a consonant, such as cat and mat. Let’s call these latter closed rhymes. It is a mark of skill in a lyricist when he uses a lot of open rhymes on long notes at the ends of musical phrases.”
  • 12 Assonance is useful – don’t confuse this with rhyme [e.g. ‘mind’ and ‘hide’ share the same vowel sound]
  • 12 Identity rhyme [ie exact pun in sound] is a weak effect (e.g. ‘find you’ and ‘defined you’)
  • 13 “If you cannot find a rhyme for a word in a situation where one is required, scrap the whole line and write something else.”
  • 13-14 “Charles Dickens gave a piece of advice on writing well: When you write something you particularly like, strike it out. The advice may be overstated, but there is in it a considerable truth. The writer should never fall so in love with a line that he will not abandon it for the sake of the larger effect. Never interrupt the mass for the detail.”
  • 14 Lees says that you can sometimes ‘cheat’ and ‘sneak in’ false rhymes [I disagree!]
  • 14 Lees says you can rhymes singular and plural [I disagree!]
  • 14 Lees quotes rule-breaking by Shakespeare [But this is a misreading of Shakespeare, who either broke a rule to prove its necessity, or was not actually breaking a rule, but the words were simply pronounced differently from the way we pronounce them today.]
  • 15 humorous songs can break all the rules [but rely on these rules for their success – they knowingly sabotage the rules, like Shakespeare]
  • 16 Purity of rhyme is desirable, preferable, and sometimes downright necessary in a song that makes a sober statement. The rules can be bent discreetly. And in humour, anything goes – except bad writing.

4. Vowels, Consonants & Singing

  • 18 “the teeth come together to produce ee [including in the second half of diphthongs], and if the note is high enough, it becomes hard to sing. Pitch and beauty of tone become difficult to maintain.” [But a good singer can correct for that problem, lowering the tongue subtly to a slightly more ‘generous’ vowel that will still sound like ‘ee’ at that high pitch.]
  • 19 Use long, open vowels to end phrases.
  • 20 In order of preference, if ending with a consonant, end with 1) m, n, l 2) r 3) f, s, v, z, sh, th, th, ch 4) d, b, g 5) t, p, k
  • 21 “We have, then, a descending order of preferences. For the long-held notes – which usually are those that occur at rhyme points – try to use long open vowels. Next, look for long vowels ending in soft consonants. At the bottom of the list, to be avoided at almost any cost, are short vowels followed by the very hard consonants, the voiceless stops.”
  • 12 “All good lyricists try to work with the better sounds in their language, whatever the language that may be, avoiding the ugly sounds. That is why languages that sound harsh to the foreigner, such as German and, to a lesser extent, Brazilian Portuguese, can seem quite soft when sung. The songwriter uses the better sounds of his language, and the singer enunciates them as attractively as possible.”
  • 21 Minimise use of ‘s’ – though Lees likes them.
  • 22 Microphone issues: ‘s’, ‘p’; similar or same letter at the end of a word and start of next word (eg tallest tree) [although it could be intentional such as Sondheim’s ‘Don’t you love farce’ in ‘Send in the Clowns’; also singer can exploit the ‘problem’]; clusters of consonants
  • 23 “If this seems like excessive concern with detail, let me assure you that it is not. The failure to make an almost microscopic examination of sound and the mechanics of singing is one of the major shortcomings of the average lyricist.”
  • Great examples: Johnny Mercer’s ‘I remember you’ and ‘I thought about you’
  • 25 Phonetic elements influence meaning, and the listener’s experience

5. Making It Fit

  • 26 “The most exacting part of lyric writing is making the words fit perfectly into the melody. The lyric should fit the music in every way – not only should the right number of syllables be fitted to the notes, but the right kind of syllables: short syllables for short notes, long syllables for long notes. Furthermore, the phrases of the lyric must be in exact accord with the phrases of the music. The lyric should pause and breathe where the music pauses and breathes. The next point would seem too rudimentary to require mention, except that one hears such monstrosities often in contemporary lyrics: never break a phrase in the middle of a word, except rarely for comedic effect. In really brilliant lyrics, you will often notice that the intervals of the music vaguely approximate the natural intervals of the words as they would sound if spoken.”
  • 28 “a good lyricist should be highly sensitive to intervals, whether he knows their names or not”
  • 29 “It is advisable, when setting out to write lyrics for a melody, to listen and listen and listen to it until its intervals and contours almost begin to suggest words to ou. And, of course, one should listen to the shifting moods created by the melody’s harmonic sequences.”
  • 29 Lees believes that the order of writing should be 1) the idea of the song 2) the music 3) the lyrics. (30 Lees never writes the lyrics first)
  • 29 “In general, composers confronted with existing lyrics tend to write rather dry and academic melodies that do indeed fit the lyric mechanically but somethow fail to achieve any distinguishing musical colour or even to evoke the mood of the lyrics.”
  • Blues – iambic pentameter; repeat 1st line, have a true rhyme
  • 32 don’t add extra syllables to a note in later verses
  • 33 “One syllable, one note: that is the principle of skilled songwriting” [… unless you want to write art song; and there are plenty of popular songs with 2 or more notes to a syllable, although Gene Lees’ suggestion is still a good guideline.]

6. Forms, Patterns and Analysis

  • 34 – 32 bars = AABA (typically), but could be ABAB
  • [modern song = (verse + chorus) (verse + chorus) (middle 8) (verse + chorus) = larger AABA]
  • 34 – 32 bars = 4x8bars, a line of melody being 8 bars
  • 36 a song should build emotionally with a payoff at the end
  • 36 French and Brazilian ‘make a monster’ method, making nonsense syllables for a lyric skeleton of a melody
  • 37 Eight bars (ie a line of melody) may be 4, 6, or 5 lines of lyric
  • 38 avoid ‘offending’ the ear
  • 39 “It is not so much necessary that rhyming be conspicuously clever, although clever rhyming is an attractive and often charming effect, as that it be good rhyming: solid, correct, and executed in such a way that it has a feeling of the natural, the improvisatory, the unpremeditated. And, above all, it must fit.”

7. Ideas and Other Dilemmas

  • 40 “a lyric requires a specific and concrete idea, and, if he loves the art, the lyricist will demand that it be a fresh one.”
  • 41 Use an everyday expression as a song title
  • 41 “The device [of using an everyday expression for a title] works only if the lyricist does indeed do something fresh with such an expression. If not, the song may be as trite as the title.”
  • 42 Plunder old song titles [I disagree!]
  • 42 – Two weeks with no inspiration for a lyric is not unusual
  • 43 Mercer used assonance well in film’ The Americanisation of Emily’ in “As my eyes visualise a family, they see dreamily Emily too.”
  • 43 Don’t look at others’ lyrics before they’re published – beware later spurious lawsuits about plagiarism
  • 44 “It is unfortunate that you cannot teach taste. It may be possible to acquire it – certainly, it is possible to refine it – but you cannot teach it, particularly to someone who does not wish to have it, or, more precisely, who is satisfied with his or her taste just as it is. A really gifted artist may spend a lifetime improving his taste. “Taste”, according to an old French maxim, “is the result of a thousand distastes.””
  • 44 “One can, in fact, teach only the underlying mechanical skills of an art or craft. It is possible, to be sure, to be a craftsman without being an artist. But it is not possible to be an artist without being a craftsman. Once he or she has acquired the skills, the craftsman-cum-artist is faced with a permanent search for ideas that are good enough. Mercer would often lay a lyric aside for months, then look at it and, if he felt it was not up to standard, simply throw it out.”
  • 44 Never write a self-pity ‘poor me’ lyric
  • 44 Indirect emotion is often more telling
  • 44 You don’t have to write from experience [but it must be emotionally true]
  • 44 “the writer must convince himself of the veracity of the story, and in the process convinces the audience as well”
  • 44 F Scott Fitzgerald “Begin with an individual and before you know it you have created a type: begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing.” [Compare Jung, in ‘The Unkown Self’ “what is most personal is most universal”]
  • 45 “don’t generalise, particularise. Don’t tell your listener that life is happy, or sad. Show it. Prove it. Illustrate it.”
  • 45 Sing your lyrics and melodies to test them
  • 45 Search – don’t be satisfied with your first idea
  • 45 “It is quite true that Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics for ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ in five minutes, and for ‘Autumn Leaves’ in about fifteen. But ‘Skylark’ took him a year. That should console and encourage all of us in the long, solitary, often frustrating, but ultimately very rewarding task of writing lyrics.”

8. The Words You Choose

  • 46 Short words are more direct emotionally
  • 46 Posher words are from French aristocracy of Middle Ages; simpler words are from Anglo-Saxon peasantry
  • 47 “it has been said that there are no synonyms in the English language, and this is true, for each of the similar words has a subtle connotation of its own”
  • 48 ‘The words for basic things and concepts tend to derive from Anglo-Saxon. … When we use a French word instead of the Anglo-Saxon, it has an effect of intellectuality and detachment.”
  • 48 “It has been said that we whose primary language is English speak Anglo-Saxon until the age of three and then begin learning French. From that age onward, by some deep untuition, we use the old language for matters of the heart and things of the earth and things close to home, and French to soar into imaginative abstraction. A child first learns words like hand, foot, arm, let, mouth, smoke, burn, feel, touch, rain, sun, moon, sleep, wake, love, fish, kiss, sky, stars. It is only later that he entertains such abstractions as nation, inflation, infatuation, superstition, liberty, confidence, assurance. Ever after, the simple Anglo-Saxon words one learns during the dawning of consciousness will have far more powerful effect.”

9. Tattered Standards

  • 49 Traditional, high literary rules of the game have not only changed, but been abandoned.
  • 49-50 “Art of high quality takes time and exacting standards to produce, and requires an ‘audience’ with taste and money to fund its making. In a mass age, this is not feasible. The merchants of entertainment need lots of people, not a few with excellent taste, and they elected to inspire and distribute abysmal trash and simply call it art. This aesthetic gerrymandering, whereby three-chord guitar players became known as ‘composers’ and the worst possible scratch-throated singers became ‘artists’, altered the aesthetics of society.”
  • 50 “The public-relations experts of the record industry invented a remarkably effective simple device to discredit any expectation of excellence: they coined a term, referring to that demand as elitism, suggesting that those who clung to them were somehow anti-democratic, if not downright fascisitic.”
  • 50 “The record industry had a vested interest in lowering standards, and it did.”
  • 51 “If we have a generation of editors who cannot correct bad writing, we have not had nearly three generations of listeners who cannot detect it in the song form.”
  • 51 “The pop music world is big business – very big business, a multi-billion dollar business. It is not about art, it is about money.”
  • 51 A prescriptive dictionary sets out how words ‘should’ be used; a descriptive dictionary accepts how they are used.
  • 52 Songwriting success nowadays has little to do with quality or craftsmanship.

10. How to use the rhyming dictionary

  • 53 “The conscientious lyricist wants to be sure he has considered all the possibilities for a rhyme when he finally commits a line to paper. He wants to feel secure in the knowledge that he has not settled for some second-best image or idea. And the [rhyming] dictionary permits him to see quickly what those possibilities are. Sometimes it will suggest a better idea or line than the one he had vaguely in mind – even a startingly fresh and original one, if he gets lucky. And, at other times, it may reveal that a line he has already written has so few rhyming possibilities that he had better abandon it now, rather than invest further work and worry in an idea that is not going to lead to a good rhyme.”
  • 53 “The very process of browsing in it [the rhyming dictionary] enriches one’s familiarity with rhyme. It makes you a better craftsman.”
  • 54 “A good writer, particularly a good writer of songs, seeks out those words that express thoughts most directly, simply, vividly, and immediately.”

You can buy Gene Lees’ rhyming dictionary by clicking below:

2 Comments on “Gene Lees on lyric writing

  1. Hi Alexander,

    Thank you for these excellent notes and sharing this valuable knowledge.

    Please may I ask a few questions about some of the points discussed?

    2.11 – What is an ‘enjambment rhyme’?

    Is the line, ‘I don’t understand, she let go of my hand’, an example of an enjambment rhyme?

    7.44 – What is a ‘self-pity poor me’ lyric?

    • Hi Michael – my summary notes are reminders of key points from the book itself, and not necessarily explanatory. You’ll need to read the book if you want detailed explanations.


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