glasses and pen on paper

How to write a song for a musical

By BBC Maestro

If you dream of writing a musical, there are several things you’ll need to learn about, from how to come up with a great idea to building great characters.

But there’s one thing that’s arguably more important than any other when it comes to making an amazing musical: the songs. So, with that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about how to write a song for a musical.

How many songs are in a musical?

First things first, how many songs do you need to write for your musical? There’s no set answer, but a typical Broadway-style musical usually has between 15 to 20 songs. This includes a variety of different song types, including your showstopper main songs (usually between 4 and 6), reprisals and character songs.

Things to think about when writing a musical theatre song

Whether you’re writing four songs or 20, there are several different elements to consider when writing a song for musical theatre – and when you put them all together, that’s when the magic happens. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

The story you’re trying to tell

Every song in a musical has a purpose. As Tim Rice explains in his BBC Maestro course, Writing and Performing Musical Theatre:

“In a musical, each song has to push the story forward somehow. Sometimes this means pushing the plot of the story on, but sometimes songs need to help your audience understand a character a bit more.”

Think about each song as a mini-story within the bigger story of the musical, with a beginning, a middle and an end. You should also consider who is telling the story and what they’re trying to say, which will also help you write a song that’s authentically in their voice.

Consider the song placement

Musical theatre tends to follow certain conventions, and one of these is where they tend to come in the performance. These include:

  • The opening number. These are the first songs of musicals, which introduce us to the world of the show and set the style and tone. Audiences should immediately know if they’re watching a comedy or a drama from the opening song.
  • Ending Act One: This song is usually a cliffhanger that leaves the audience intrigued about where the resolution will come from.
  • Act two songs: These give you the opportunity to mix things up a little, introducing new characters or themes or using lyrics from previous songs in new ways.
  • The finale: Your finale resolves the main conflict and leaves the audience with a lasting impression of the show.

Having a clear idea of these conventions can help you to write your song, as you know that a song at the start of the show should set the scene, for example, and a song before the end of the first act should be a cliffhanger that leaves the audience wanting more.

Types of musical theatre songs

Another important thing to consider is what type of song you want to write. You’ll find several different types of songs in musical theatre, and it’s important to think about which of these types will best fit the story you’re trying to tell, the characters who are telling it, and where it comes in the musical.

Some of the song types include:

  • The ‘I Want’ song: A song in which a protagonist or antagonist discusses the situation they’re in, and what it is they want. Think of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from The Lion King, in which Simba expresses his desire to grow up quickly and become the ruler of his land.
  • Dance numbers: Focused more on choreography and dance, these numbers can be energetic and visually stunning.
  • Reprise: A repetition of an earlier song, usually with altered lyrics, or in a different context. Reprises are often emotional moments that highlight character development or development in the plot.
  • Ensemble number: These songs involve the whole cast and are usually big, choreographed productions that advance the plot.
  • Reflection song: Explores a character’s introspective thoughts and emotions. Reflection songs are moments of self-discovery and contemplation.

Choosing one of these (or other standard) song types can ensure you create a dynamic and engaging musical experience. It also helps you to make sure there’s a balance of different song types in the performance, mixing dance numbers with reflection songs to create well-rounded characters and a well-rounded story.

What is the structure of a musical song?

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to the structure – but there are some typical structures that you’ll be familiar with if you’re a fan of musicals. Tim Rice explains in his BBC Maestro course that many songs in musicals follow a typical pop song structure. You don’t need to stick with this structure, of course, but as Tim explains, “if you are just starting out it’s useful to become acquainted with this format and its variations, and why it can be very powerful in helping you deliver a lyric.”

That structure is as follows:

  • Intro: Gives the audience an understanding of the world
  • Verse: Introduces the situation and problem a character is facing
  • Chorus: Allows the audience to see what the character really wants
  • Verse: Builds tension or enhances the problem
  • Chorus: Restates what the character really wants
  • Bridge: Changes the pace musically and lyrically
  • Chorus: A decision is made, moving the story forward

Thinking about the structure in this way when writing your song will help to ensure it moves the story forward.

How to write lyrics for musical theatre

The melody is, of course, important in a musical theatre song, but it’s the lyrics that really resonate with the majority of the audience. And in a musical, every song has to tell a story – so the lyrics are a crucial element. As Tim Rice says: “the most obvious point is that the lyrics have to make sense and tell the story clearly.”

He goes on to say:

“A great lyric is one which can stand on its own without the music and can sound natural if spoken in conversation. Focus on finding clear conversation and communication between your characters, and then looking at how that applies to the structure.”

Try writing your lyrics in a conversational way. Think about what your character is trying to communicate, embody their voice, and have fun with it. Lyrics don’t have to be deep and meaningful – but they do need to be in your character’s voice and help to drive the narrative forward.

How do the lyrics and music work together?

Will you be writing both the lyrics and the music for your musical? Or will you work with a collaborator to create one or the other? Either way, it’s important to think about how the two work together. Tim Rice says:

“You can work on utilising the feel of the music to create bolder and more passionate lyrics. If the music has lots of attacks with short, sharp musical phrases, your choices of words could help highlight that. If the music has long sweeping romantic phrases, you might have to use fewer words or spread words out over several notes, which means the clarity of the lyric choices is important in order to get your point across.”

Create a musical theatre masterpiece

There are a lot of different elements that go into making the perfect musical theatre song – and it may take a little trial and error to get it right. But that’s part of the fun of writing for musical theatre.

If you want to learn more about everything that goes into making a musical, take a look at our course, Writing and Performing Musical Theatre, with West End legend Sir Tim Rice. 

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