Sondheim on songwriting (2)

stephen-sondheimI have introduced Stephen Sondheim in my blog article ‘Stephen Sondheim on Songwriting (1)‘. This piece is a set of notes that I made on the book: Mark Eden Horowitz (2010) Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (2nd edition), Scarecrow Press. The book is a transcript of interviews about Sondheim’s musicals and shows. Sondheim talks not just about songwriting, but about the larger task of writing a whole show, the relationship to performers and other musicians, and also what a songwriter can learn from audiences.

[Note: Where I have marked MH, it is quoting Horowitz; otherwise all quotes are Sondheim. The comments in square brackets are my own thoughts and responses.]

Preface to the 2nd Edition
  • v MH “art is most effective when coupled with craft”
  • viii MH “He [Sondheim] believes in the power of the subconscious to make connections and provide solutions, and for that reason tries to limit his work to the universe of one score at a time.”
  • Viii “structure versus looseness, surprise versus inevitability, clarity versus subtext”
Chap 1 – Passion
  • 4 Switch keys early in creative process to write only for the vocal range
  • 4 Try different keys to avoid getting stuck in muscular memory and not working creatively
  • 5 Choose a key you don’t normally write in
  • 8 How to make variety and make it hang together implies thinking of ‘long line development’
  • 8 “music should be inevitable but fresh”
  • 9 Cole Porter melodic variation and harmonic sophistication; Jerome Kern harmonic experimentation; Leonard Bernstein rhythmic surprise
  • 10 ‘thumb tacks’: establish destinations and way stations for architecture of lyrics and /or music
  • 10 Sondheim sees harmony as at the heart of structure
  • 11 Add another bar of music without vocal melody to create space for a character
  • 12 As a writer, imagine all stage directives (ie what the character would be doing)
  • 12 Have staging in mind, but let the director / performer change it
  • 13 Change the music to help a particular producer’s vision
  • 17 harmony moves via the bass line
  • [inverted chords open music up]
  • 17-18 “I’m a firm believer that the ear hears things that the mind does not know, particularly in non-musicians, but even in a musician. That, if it’s there, it’s there. You look at a sidewalk, you don’t see the grouting, but the grouting is there. If you’ve built sidewalks, you see the grouting. You say: Gee, that’s bad grouting over there. (This is a terrible metaphor and I’m going to pound it into the ground.) The whole point is that what cements music is a musician’s business, and the idea is not to make it effortful for the listener – to make it effortless for the listener.” [NB This is, for me, one of Sondheim’s most important teaching ideas. Every word choice by a lyricist, or musical choice by a composer or performer, the inflection of a melody, or single consonant, is felt by the listener, though they may well not be able to analyse or explain what they have heard. So everything the writers and performers do matters in terms of impact on the listener.]
  • 18 “I think what makes a song last – or music last, or art last – is surprise; particularly narrative art – music, in the sense of narrative art that exists in time.”
  • 19 music should surprise and feel inevitable at the same time
  • 21 through-composed songs are easier to write than the 32 bar form
  • 23 Accommodate voices and performers, and don’t worry about key relationships between pieces
  • 25 “… actors like to sing my stuff – because I’m essentially a playwright in song, and I’m not asking them to sing songs, I’m asking them to play scenes”
  • 30 “Ordinarily, one would match the melodic idea to the rhythm of the accompaniment.” But you can convey subtlety by contrasting them
  • 30 “when you make an emotional transition, it probably – I don’t want to say that this is dogma – it should probably be accompanied, I think, by a harmonic transition of some kind”
  • 31 ‘modulation’ is temporary; ‘tonicisation’ (Milton Babbitt’s word) is more emphatic
  • 34 we need a sense of repetition without becoming repetitious
  • 35 “being very careful not to end your melody before you want it to”
  • 35-6 “just the direction of one note can completely change the tone of a sentence”
  • 36 “the minute you go off stepwise – even if it’s on an off-beat – you give a distinct emphasis to a word”
  • 37 a) 75% of the time, lyric first, which then suggests a melodic shape b) find harmonic or rhythmic accompaniment c) harmonic plan helps work out the architecture
  • 37 “It’s the musicality of the language itself that suggests the music.” [Compare this with Gene Lees, who said that the music always had to come first for him, and he would then add lyrics to the composer’s music.]
  • 40 instruments and scales can suggest time and place without being slavish to ‘authenticity’, as can linguistic turns [vocabulary accents, period phrases]
  • 41 a weaker line can make the next line feel stronger
  • 42 try many melodic and harmonic permutations to find what is ‘just right’
  • 43 “less is more”
  • 46 “The older I get, guess what takes the most effort in the world? Simplicity. It’s what we were just talking about. This is really simple, and it cost me an arm and a leg to get this simple. The problem with simplicity is it’s really hard to do. There’s this awful term ‘simplistic’, and I’m not sure I even know what it means. There’s simple-minded, and there’s simple, and there’s a big difference. Most pop music is simple-minded, and most show music is simple-minded – when it’s not pretentious and over-complicated, or long-winded. ‘Simple’ is really hard to do.”
  • 46 “I tend, like many composers, not to be simple. Because it’s hard – it’s much eaiser to hide behind a lot of chocolate sauce.”
  • 47 avoid ‘explaining yourself’ songs – just say what’s in your heart
  • 48 “That’s what ‘less is more’ is about – it’s about being less discursive both musically and lyrically.”
  • 50 “MH: What do you look for in other people’s work? How do you judge it? SS: Surprise. Just don’t tell me something I already know. And I’m not talking lyrically. I’m talking musically too. Let me hear a voice, and let me be surprised.”
  • 50 How do you develop, mature or find your voice? Keep writing.
  • 51 Eclecticism – borrow from styles, tunes, harmonic structures, for inspiration
  • 53 Directors like writer to stay away while they make ‘scratch track’ of the first draft of a show
  • 54 In his early work, Sondheim marked everything mf; later on, he became meticulous about the musical information and added more information on the scores after performances
  • 54 Orchestration adjusts to the performers
  • 55 Arrangements and covers – keep the melody, harmony and lyrics – change tempo, texture, time signatures
Chap 2 – Assassins
  • 69 Songs in a major key can be sad [and minor can be happy]
  • 70 Jot down all ideas – later, combine some, discard others
  • 70 “Routining” [ie sequencing songs in a show]; can put ballads next to each other if the dramatic arc works
  • 71 numbers can ‘give air’ to a moment, and savour it, or move story forwards
  • 71 “There’s an old cliché that when a character reaches a peak of emotion, and it’s too great for speech, he has to sing. There’s some truth in that, but not a lot, because characters don’t often reach that peak of emotion.”
  • 72 Underscoring: use leitmotif; keep the narrative going
  • 73 “Lyric writing is, for me, hell. It’s genuinely unpleasant, even though I often end up proud of what I’ve done. But it’s really, really, really hard. Particularly with this language, which is a great language, but there are certain aspects of it that are hard to sing – as opposed to Italian, where virtually every word is singable.”
  • 75 “I’ve discovered recently – to my horror … – that my opening numbers tend to be much too long. Now I know that it’s because I’m setting all the ground rules up – for the rest of the show, for myself – and so it’s harder for me to be economical.”
  • 75 Composes shows chronologically [NB the full storyline is already there, though, so the writer knows where he’s going.]
  • 77 “What Oscar [Hammerstein II] taught me – set up the ground rules.”
  • 78 “MH: What does the audience know at this point? What don’t they know? And how am I trying to tell them?” SS: make things clear, so be clear in yourself first
  • 78 At the performance, be in the audience, and check how / whether they are concentrating
  • 78 The audience doesn’t need to like something; don’t pander to them. But they do need to ‘get’ it. For example, the first night of ‘West Side Story’ a man walked out in the opening number, because it was clear what the show was.
  • 79 “I’ve discovered over a period of years that essentially I’m a playwright who writes with song, and that playwrights are actors.” [ie the writer must live the characters and story from the inside.]
Chap 3 – Into the Woods
  • 86 invented material works, but is not always conscious
  • 86 work material, but don’t be too intellectual about it
  • 86 “I believe that the unconscious is what writes and that the way to write a song – or anything, I suppose – is to live, eat and breathe it all the time, and that when you go to sleep the work is done for you. For me, if I interrupt it too much with social life, with distraction, or with other work, it dissipates and I have to get back to it. That’s why I work on one thing at a time. I believe if you inundate yourself with what you’re working on, the brain starts to put all these things together. So I find it not just a coincidence that the next day I will write a new passage of music and say: Hey, that has the same relationship harmonically that the first section has; isn’t that interesting? It’s because of what’s going on in the back of your brain unconsciously.”
Chap 4 – Sunday in the Park with George
  • 101 Link two disparate entities through “architectural similarities”
  • 103 design, echo, effect of juxtapositions or separations
  • 106 “I love the sound of a chorus, but it’s hard for me to justify eighty people singing the same thought.”
  • 110 “Generally, if you want things heard by an audience, it has to be solo or tutti – all together. Audiences cannot distinguish between two tunes, two melodic lines, or two different lyrics going together – unless they’ve heard each one before.”
  • 111 Doesn’t like characters to repeat a word / phrase even though it is musical conversation
Chap 5 – Interlude
  • 120 What works as voice and piano may be harder for voices with other instruments
  • 121 Use inflections of speech to create rhythm
  • 122 Be more particular about piano registers [this could apply to guitars as well in songwriting]
Chap 6 – Sweeney Todd
  • 126 allowed directors, musical directors etc to adapt, add link material etc
  • 130 writes for music theatre people who have register breaks in their voices, and can’t match tone across different parts of the voice. [It seems to me that Sondheim writes parts of less then an octave and a half (range of 12 notes) because he doesn’t expect music theatre singers to have the range or vocal skills beyond that.]
  • 132 Makes music asymmetric to keep it fluid and interesting
  • 133 Changing chord in last moment of a bar
  • 134 most characterisation comes from a lyric more than a musicalisation, but Sondheim aims for the latter as well
  • 135 Milton Babitt taught him to see [holographically] how a motif was found in a section, and was the template for a long-line structure in Mozart
  • 137 each character gets a solo, gets ‘musicalised’ so that we can get to know them
  • 139 Avoids the 6-4 chord (2nd inversion) as ‘corny’, and uses just chords I and II
  • 141 New time signatures for variety or to reflect conversational style [so this is an example where Sondheim is not driven by character or story]
  • 144 movies of musicals don’t work as well as the stage
  • 146 defers to performers, but Bernstein wouldn’t
  • 149 often completes shows during final rehearsals
  • 151 melodies with 2nds leave something to be resolved
  • 153 recordings need to be faster than visual productions because the listener has nothing visual to hold their interest
Chap 7 – Pacific Overtures
  • 155-6 “I often start my lyrics with just making a list – free association – of what the song is about. Not necessarily the point of it, but the atmosphere of it, and what it’s dealing with.”
  • 158 “What do you think haiku are about? It’s called: How simple can you make a poem? Simple. Simple, meaning less. Less is more.”
  • 159 Pedal note – can vary harmonies and dissonances on it because pedal anchors listener; pedal note might indicate lack of invention, but can create dramatic tension
  • 160 wrote a piece which established raw materials of musical, and then didn’t use the piece itself
Chap 8 – Finale
  • 165 The arranger, not the composer, tends to write the overture
  • 166 graphing / plotting music is a good idea
  • 168 “The way for writers who want to write is just listen to a lot of music and figure out how people wrote what they wrote. There is a lot of craft, and it’s underestimated, even in a frivolous – I shouldn’t downgrade it by saying frivolous – but even in a commercial profession, like musical theatre, there’s a great deal to be learned. To analyze a Kern tune of to analyze an Arlen tune is not more than a rung below analyzing the Mozart 39th [symphony]; it’s the same process. And without craft, I think art is nonsense – it’s a sort of masturbation. Whereas, with craft, it’s a form of teaching, which, I have said innumerable times, is the noblest profession on earth. What’s nice about these interviews is it’s about the craft, instead of about: How did you get to be a composer, and what was your education? But it’s noble stuff. And the great thing about music is, if you’re a musician and you’re a composer, it’s just fun – particularly if you’re a piano player. It’s just fun to sit and make sounds and say; “Ooh, that’s good.” And, if you have a purpose, to write them down, it’s really fun.”
Chap 9 – Bounce (pre-Road Show)
  • 171 rarely re-use material; re-used but developed in entirely new way
  • 172 fifteen songs in a show
  • [doesn’t publish until he’s got a definitive version – perhaps after many performances and revisions; like Woody Guthrie who told Pete Seeger he didn’t record a song until he’d been performing it for 10 years]
  • [always watches shows at different points in its run – gauges audience behaviour, and his own personal response]
  • 179 “An audience always smells confidence from the stage. I think it happens from the minute they enter the theatre, but certainly once the curtain goes up – everything from the way the lights work to the way the orchestra sounds, but particularly the way the actors perform – the audience either feels that they’re confident or they’re not. And if the actors aren’t completely confident, then neither is the audience – whether they like it or not. They feel better, they’re more receptive, and they enjoy it more when they sense they are in a show where everyone on stage know what they’re doing and is pleased with what they’re doing.”
  • 180 “That’s usually where a show gets in trouble – right at the beginning.”
  • 180 “George Kaufman [playwright, producer, director, critic] said: “Take out the improvements.” Take out everything that isn’t necessary.
  • 183 “I don’t think it gets easier for anybody, whether you’re a writer, novelist, painter, composer, whatever. If anything, it gets harder because you’re so much more aware of the dangers. You’re worried about repeating yourself; you’re worried about your inventive powers deteriorating (which they do with age); you’re worried about being out of touch with the zeitgeist. There are sixty-four reasons why it gets harder as you get older.”
  • 184 “Keeping up with the young folk is hard. And it’s virtually impossible. …. Particularly if you’re in commercial art.”
  • 184 “nobody is completely satisfied with their work – that I know anyway. As Valéry [French poet and philosopher] said, “A poem is never finished, it is abandoned.”
  • 184-5 “I tend to see what is problematic and what is flawed, rather than what is good about my own work. Curiously enough, not about other people’s work. I’m a very good receiver of other people’s work, because I really look for what’s good, and I respond to what’s good. And if what’s good is good, then I right away forgive the flaws. If it’s all bad, or I don’t like it, if it’s bogus, that’s a whole other matter.”
Chap 10 – Encore
  • 189 “If you’re going to rewrite a song, why are you rewriting it? Is it because the basic idea is bad? Because if that’s so then you have to throw the whole thing out. Sometimes you get fond of an idea that is exactly what the disease is, and it takes a lot of reworking before you decide. You know, I’ve got to start all over.”
  • 190 Don’t write what happens, write what it means to the characters
  • 193 Larger structures mustn’t be episodic, but refrain should have clues (harmonically or melodically) to the entire structure
  • 194 “the ear gets to hear things more than once and, by the sense of repetition, a structure emerges for the ear.”
  • 199 Long pedal points to keep piece anchored, then say details with harmonic and melodic quirks
  • 199 “that’s the other thing you have to take into consideration when you’re writing: to keep it varied enough for the ear, but not so varied that it loses its structural stability.”
  • 199 Theatre and pop songs needs more stability and predictability than an art song
  • 199 “when you’ve got nothing more to say, then shut up”
  • 199-200 “there are just so many times you can repeat your theme or just so many times you can repeat your chord progression before it gets boring.”
  • 202 melodies of 10th or 11th
  • 203 accompaniment – harmony or rhythm – may come first, establishing energy and sound world of song
  • 204 “find the rhythm of the person talking and find the emotional colour of the person talking, put them together and make an accompaniment figure.”
  • 204 inflection of sentence gives a clue to the song
  • 205 look for rhythms [and bar groupings ] that can un-square the lyric’s rhythm and make it more supple
  • 205 lyric may or may not have subtext; music may or may not supply subtext. “The thing is that lyrics, like dialogue, should have some subtext. Sometimes you want the music to supply subtext and sometimes you want the music not to supply the subtext. So, it’s not so much about emotion as it is about subtext – about what the character is saying behind the lyric, and if he’s saying anything behind the lyric.”
  • 209 as the lyricist, don’t write like someone else, write your own words
  • 211 Any lyric can be in 3 or 4 [and create interesting moments if not set in the most predictable one.]
  • 223 content dictates form
  • 223 make the most of the least
  • 229 pianist composers put in more notes and texture, that can be removed when other instrumentation is available
  • 231 Listen to unfamiliar music
  • 231 Doesn’t study scores, only recordings [ie he is learning from what he hears, and his reactions to that]
  • 233 “steals” a lot of ideas from people’s music [All creators do this, in the sense that that draw upon the cultural materials around them, and make something new with them. Composers and songwriters have always done this, many quite consciously. This is not the same as plagiarism, which is wholesale replication of material, with no creative transformation.]
  • 233 revivals give people a chance to take a fresh look
  • 233 revivals need to be reworkings, to keep the show live and contemporary
  • 234 happy to hear totally different version and interpretations of his work
  • 235 words of songs benefit from updating if they’re meant to be contemporary, but can be left if they are obviously meant to be part of a historic period
  • 236 wants people to be able to access video of a show in a library, but concerned about the internet preventing creators from being paid fairly by those listening / watching
  • 236-7 “If you’re not going to rhyme – if you’re going to make a feature of not rhyming – don’t not rhyme let’s say home and go, you’ve got to not rhyme home and be. It’s got to be so shocking to the ear when you expect the rhyme that, when it comes out, there’s no question that it’s not supposed to rhyme. What makes the line ‘Give us more to see’ so effective is that it follows ‘Anything you do, let it come from you’ – it’s ‘ooo … ooo … ooo …E!”
  • 240 “I’m an actor when I write and I get into the characters.”
  • 240 “I always assume that audiences are medium-speed – that if you explain enough to them, it’s okay.”
  • 240 “The important thing with me with an audience is to be a little bit ahead of them. If they’re a little bit ahead of you, they tend to get bored.
  • 241 “It isn’t that you wait for an audience to like a show, but you can feel in an audience if they’re with you. They may be with you and dislike the show, but you can feel bafflement, or confusion, or lack of focus, or dissipation or interest.”
  • 242 West Side Story has dated language, but can’t update because the music wouldn’t fit it.
  • 243 Calls ‘Somewhere’ “the ‘A’ song” because it’s bad writing – the rising 7th on “there’s a” puts too much stress on the small word
  • 244 “you don’t write for favours, you write for love”
  • 244 “I’m an experimental writer and that’s all there is to it. [As Oscar Hammerstein’s assistant on the failed show ‘Allegro’] I learned how to write an experimental flop. That’s important. That’s very important.”
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3 Comments on “Sondheim on songwriting (2)

  1. I remember in an interview Sondheim mentioned a couple of resources he uses for writing lyrics. One resource was a book of slang rhyming words. Do you know the name of the book.

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