Sammy Cahn on Songwriting

Sammy-CahnSammy Cahn (1913-1993) was a lyricist (who, like Oscar Hammerstein, preferred to call himself a lyrist) who collaborated successfully with the composers Saul Chaplin, James van Heusen and Jule Styne. He was nominated for 26 Oscars, and won four, for ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, ‘All the Way’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Call Me Irresponsible’; other notable titles were ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’, ‘Love and Marriage’, and ‘Come Fly with Me’. Those who sang his songs included Frank Sinatra (who recorded 87 of his songs), Doris Day, and Mario Lanza. Cahn went on to be the President of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972. The notes in this article come from two books, one for which he was the author, and the other for which he was interviewed.

Some of Cahn’s central songwriting concepts were singability, impeccable ‘architecture’, commitment to ‘neatening up’ a lyric until nothing feels out of place or strikes a wrong note, strenuous avoidance of impure rhyme, and a workmanlike approach in which he was prepared to take on any songwriting commission and find a solution to a problem.

Cahn, Sammy (1984) ‘Introduction’, in Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary, Souvenir, London, pp. xiii-xliv

  • 13 “I am often asked, Which comes first – the words or the music? I answer that what comes first is the phone call asking you to write a song.”
  • 13 Prefers the word lyrist to lyricist
  • 13 “I am also asked, What is the difference between a poem and a lyric? My answer is that a poem is meant for the eye, while a lyric is meant for the ear, but both reach the mind and touch the heart. Shakespeare, though he was a master poet, would have made a poor lyrist. Just try to sing “Love can laugh at locksmiths.” If the word orange is unrhymable, locksmiths is unsingable. And singability is the difference between a poem and a lyric. Once I have written a song and have considered all the pros and cons of the lyric, the uppermost and final consicderation is, Does it sing? And not only sing, but sing effortlessly. The cadences of the lyric must leave the most subtle breathing spaces, as must the music. Words will not sing unless they are properly wedded to the proper notes. For this reason, no matter which composer I have worked with, when a song is finished, we spend just as many if not more hours over the demonstration of the song as we did writing it. (I have even been called a ‘lethal song demonstrator’ because I put across the story line of the song by lean-ing into it, and e-nun-ci-a-ting every word.)”
  • 13 “I believe anyone can learn the concept of singability and that anyone can write lyrics. All you need are the rhyming words and something to say. As a youngster I learned how to write a song by playing a game. I would take the words from other great lyrists of the day and change them.”
  • 17 “I once asked Van Heusen to give me a grace note to add a little But if to a line, He stared at me and said, ‘I will write another melody for you’.”
  • 17 “I cannot emphasise the importance of singability above all other considerations, even when incorrect phrases are used.” – what Cahn calls “sound over sense”
  • 19 “Another question most songwriters ask is, How do you get ideas for your songs? Explaining how a child is born would be easier because there at least nature has provided some rules. But when a song is being born, the songwriter has no rules to follow. Ideas can come from anywhere at anytime. And the great songwriters are often just people who have seen something simple right in front of their noses.”
  • 21 “The professional lyrist can sit down to write a waltz, a march, a ballad etc.”
  • 23 “In the writing of any lyric, the occasional inner rhyme always makes for a more graceful sound. Hence, whenever you can have an inner rhyme, go for it!”
  • 24 “Matching the closing word with the opening word of the next section always produces a graceful sound.” Cahn’s example: Al Dubin’s ‘I only have eyes for you’ – “I don’t know if we’re in a garden / Or on a crowded avenue. You are here, so am I.”
  • 24 “The words must marry the music. I cannot stress the vital importance of the music matching the words.”
  • 25 “You must learn how to handle an honest rejection. A man has a right not to like everything you write. At one time when someone used to turn down a song of mine, I felt as though I was literally being kicked in the stomach. It hurt so much. Now, when someone isn’t quite happy, I start to leave. I don’t even want to discuss the why of it. I’m off to try and bring back something that will please the buyer.”
  • 27 with hard work, an unsingable song can be made into a ‘highly singable’ one
  • 28 “While I know you can’t copyright a title, I wouldn’t have written ‘Day By Day’ knowing there was another ‘Day By Day’. I wouldn’t have written ‘New York, New York’ knowing there was another ‘New York, New York’, because both titles would be vitiated. When the monitor at ASCAP hears one of these titles, which song would be credited?”
  • 28 “In writing a title song [for a show] I always try to use the title as often as possible, almost to the point of redundancy.”
  • 30 “… set the cadence with the first line, a key to successful rhyming.”
  • 31 “Collaborations, like collaborators, differ. And the method by which you get to the final song is less important than the song itself.”
  • Views on impure rhyme: 32 “Suffice it to say, if I could undo any impure rhyme, I would do it in an instant, or at least I would try.” 32 “I often use impure rhymes for comedic purposes. In that situation the impure rhyme is working for you.” 33 “When I write an actual song, not special lyrics, I agonise over the thought of using impure rhyme. Often the process of ‘neatening up’ that one troublesome rhyme can be more time-consuming than writing the entire piece.” 33 “There are endless impure rhymes like forever and together, but it’s not enough for such words to sound like a rhyme, they must be a rhyme. Whither flows the river sounds like a rhyme, but isn’t.” 35 “Sometimes out of necessity you have to stretch for the impure rhyme, but sometimes depending on what singability or context dictate, you may choose not to rhyme at all!
  • 33 “Special lyrics can be fun because they almost create their own language. You find yourself using words in a way that would normally be overlooked, or in a way they would never be used at all.”
  • 33 “I have used the expression ‘neaten up’ and have elaborated at length on how important it is to really go over and over the lyric. Sing it until no word sticks in the mouth. Be sure that every word, every phrase, every syllable sings effortlessly. And when you have the ‘hook’, the section you want them to remember most – make sure it stands out.”
  • 34 “I first had: I need no magic wand / No mystic charm, / I’m in a world beyond / When we are arm in arm. It became: Without a golden wand / Or mystic charms / Fantastic things begin / When I am in your arms. It is almost what it was, but it is so much neater. And above all, it sings so much better.”
  • 34 “When you have finished a lyric you are pleased with, just put it aside. It will not self-destruct. Then try to redo it. Rewrite it completely. You can always go back to the original, but at least you will have repeated the pleasure and adventure of creativity.”
  • 34 “Good professional writers are rarely satisfied.”
  • 36 Sometimes it’s best to leave the most important word un-rhymed
  • 38 If you’ve said all you feel you need to say, stop writing, even if the song seems short. For example, Cahn and his musical partner Jules Styne wrote ‘It’s been a long, long time’ and ‘I fall in love too fast’ that way.
  • 39 “Every lyric writer writes to a sort of dummy, or temporary melody, one he uses until the composer takes over.”
  • 42 “There is a time when you can over-rhyme. What might work for parodies could hurt songs.”
  • 42-3 “… to understand how to rhyme, you must know the literature of songs and lyrics. You must know all of the lyrics by all of the lyrists. People often ask me if I know all the lyrics I’ve ever written. Not only do I know all of my own lyrics, regular songs, and specials (which add up to thousands), but I also know everyone else’s songs.”
You can buy Sammy Cahn’s rhyming dictionary by clicking below:


‘Sammy Cahn, Beverly Hills, California 1991’, an interview in Zollo, Paul (1991/2003) Songwriters on Songwriting, Da Capo Press, pp.27-36

  • 28 “It’s a world where songwriters didn’t have time to wait around for inspiration. They wrote songs on assignment, when the phonecall came, and often had to create on the spot, such as when Sinatra was waiting in the studio for a closing song. So Sammy didn’t like to dwell on the roots of his creativity. “If they needed a ballad,” he explained, “I wrote a ballad.””
  • 29 “when I listen to a melody I heard words.”
  • 30 “When I hand a fellow a lyric, I know exactly what I’m supposed to get back. I can go to the typewriter and type you a march, I can type you a waltz, I can type you a wedding song.”
  • 31 Check a song title has not been used before
  • 31 Singing is not talking – a lyric can have a different turn of phrase from everyday speech
  • 32 “I don’t dwell on where ideas come from; I know some people do. I write a ballad when they ask me to write a ballad.”
  • 33 Learning by writing another verse to someone else’ great lyric, or take a great lyric and write new music for it. “So, it’s one of the great training grounds. I do this every single day of my life. Practising my craft.”
  • 35 “… poems are poems. They read to the eye, to the heart, to the mind. Lyrics you have to sing. They sing to the ear, to the mind, to the heart. There’s a difference. You can read a poem but you can’t sing some poems.”
  • 35 “most [modern] writers have no sense of the architecture. Any one of my songs, you see a word under a note. You won’t see three words under a note. in those songs, every section has a different twist. If I gave Van Heusen a lyric that wasn’t architecturally correct, he wouldn’t write it.”
  • 36 “… many of the songs nowadays are one-week wonders. [Zollo: “Disposable …”] No, I don’t like that word, but they go like this: [motions with hands a plane going down] They hit the top and went down. See, the Beatles are lasting because they wrote music. Noise diminishes, music lingers. See how simple that is? You must write something that you’ll take away.”
  • 36 “A melody will never be out of fashion.”
  • 36 “Look, let me tell you something. When he [Sinatra] sings, [sings] ‘… It’s such a lovely day,’ he makes the word ‘lovely’ sound lovely. 99 singers out of a hundred wouldn’t sing it that way. … He gives the words their full meaning. And that’s why he’s Sinatra.”

You can buy Paul Zollo’s book by clicking below:

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