cover art of The Reality Check Issue: A solemn playwright with a long, winding sweater sleeve that has small illustrations detailing the struggles of a writer.
Advice to Young Theatre Composers
Continuous line drawing of hand writing with a pen on paper

I know what is in your head. I was there. Here’s some well-intentioned advice.

1Write. Write it down. And work on it. When I entered my freshman year of college, I told the head of the music department I wanted to be a composer. He said “Write music. Guaranteed, if you do, you’ll be a composer.”

I don’t mean to be glib, but that’s the everything of it. The art of writing cannot really be taught, but it can be learned by writing. All the interviews you will do later in life when you are successful and famous—about how you write, your process of generating music, the interaction with words—those questions are based on a false premise. You don’t write because you want to, or try to, or make yourself do it. Writing is not something you do. It’s something you are. Musical ideas occur to you in your head. You think in music. It is an involuntary impulse. But, simply put, will you write it down? Work on it? Learn from it? Attach it to words? Give it a dramatic context? Study harmony? Counterpoint? Analysis? History? Learn the craft? Will you be so ambitious, or compulsive (or well-balanced), that you can overcome the personal embarrassment of showing your work to the world? That’s up to you.

2 Study. Please. If you only know three chords, you will write three-chord music. Beethoven studied. In his student textbook, he read a section called “How to Write a New Sonata.” It said “Take a sonata. Take the bass, write a new upper part. Take your new upper part, write a new Bass.” Remember where Bebop came from? Brand new genius upper lines superimposed over the chord changes to “How High the Moon.” The past will teach you. Learn from it.

In addition to harmony, I recommend species counterpoint. Why? Because you are writing music for the voice, to be sung in a theatrical work, and that means melody. And a melody is a sequence of tones perceived as an entity. You don’t perceive the whole until it comes to an end, whereupon you retroactively understand and evaluate what you have already heard coming before. And it all connects in time. All good melodic lines share similar characteristics of well-formedness. They are propulsive, elastic, have a shape, a sense of climax, and a tension that resolves to a feeling of completion at the end. Species counterpoint is a laboratory wherein you can teach yourself, through experience, how to make such lines. So many attempts at melody are really successions of notes that sit on the tops of changing chords that your fingers find (for you piano-writers). But these are not melodies. They are the desire to write melodies. Sing your melodies, independent of accompaniment. The best ones carry within them their own harmonic structure and sense of wholeness and intelligibility. Examples? “Always”, the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, “La Vie En Rose,” “La Ci Darem La Mano,” “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,” “Happy Birthday,” “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” Hum them. You’ll see. Now hum yours. Does it do that?

3 Listen. To everything. And everyone. Don’t worry about your personal style. You are already you. Nadia Boulanger is reputed to have advised her students: “Never avoid the obvious.” What is obvious to you may well be non-obvious to the rest of the world. What you hear will influence you, and you will filter it through your personal impulses. Don’t try to be different. In the end, trying to make yourself interesting only makes you less so. And open yourself up to sensing reactions to your work and evaluate accordingly. Your first idea is not necessarily the best one.

4Rewrite. The art of writing is the art of rewriting. All the fruits of your study will come into play when you get down to work. First…write. Get it down. Anything. Then you can get to work and make it better. How? See paragraph two above.


5Learn to set words. Words first. That’s the way it started. The Florentines found out, in the 1590s, that the Ancient Greeks had sung their tragedies, so they applied their fortuitously expressive new Italian musical style to the theatre and created opera. You are doing the same. Learning to set words will help you avoid having to wedge ideas and phrases into a predetermined tune that you are married to. Of course, lightning will sometimes strike, and you will come up with a marvelous, lucky, and dramatically apt melody that a lyricist can adorn with words. But, be open to finding the premise of the song first, and that means words, because you are musicalizing a story. We are singing onstage in a form of impassioned speech because we are too filled with emotion to do otherwise. Frank Loesser, who always wrote lyrics before music, said that songs often happen in musicals where exclamations happen in language. Some songs even begin with an exclamation: “Oh! What a beautiful mornin’!”; “Why can’t you behave?”; “Embrace me…” (you get the idea).

6 Develop a musical metaphor. A musical theater song is often underlined with a specific accompaniment figure, or vamp, that will capture the essence and content of the theatrical intention that is meant to be acted—a musical metaphor of the lyric. The theory behind this notion is quite old. Descartes, in 1649, laid the groundwork in a little-known treatise entitled “Les Passions de l’Ame(The Passions of the Soul). Though an idealist, he needed to find a way of connecting the physical world to the immaterial world of ideas, and so he implied an answer to the question: How does music (external physical world) affect our emotions (internal mental states)? In his theory, he suggested that emotions are generated within us by “animal spirits” (esprits animaux) and that, by implication, the specific motion of a musical figure may resonate with these “spirits” to create an equivalent and corresponding Emotion in our souls. Not great science, but that kind of thinking supported an entire era of Baroque musical effect through figuration, from Rameau through Bach and beyond. Modern examples? Schubert’s “Erlkonig”, Sondheim’s opening vamp to Sweeney Todd, my own “Simple” or “Be on Your Own.” The accompaniment provides, in each case, an indelible musical image that defines atmosphere, emotion, and point of view.

7Have patience. Lehman Engel used to say “cream rises to the top.” Good work exerts its own pressure to be heard. Do your work. Make it good. There is always room for it. Believe me, no one has ever complained that there is too much good music in the world. We are all waiting to hear yours.

Originally Published in the January/February 2005 issue of The Dramatist

Maury Yeston
Maury Yeston

is a composer, lyricist, author, and teacher, and moves easily between the worlds of theatre, film, and academia, writing concert music, Broadway shows, and holding teaching posts as a musicologist and music theorist.