Writing Words for Music

Poet Bruce Spang reflects on Writing Lyrics for Music

For a presentation at the 10th Annual Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival at the University of Maine in Augusta, I was asked to reflect on the difference between writing poetry and writing lyrics for a musical. The request gave me a chance to revisit the adjustments I had to make as I worked with the composer, learning what Tom needed to have down in words that allowed him to create the music. Here are some of my thoughts.

The Research

First, I learned that writing lyrics for musical opera has many different phases. In the first phase of it, I had to rely on those who knew much more than I did about the story of Charlie Howard, the young man who was killed by three teenagers in 1984. Getting the truth about what happened as an enormously collaborative process, both in researching and finding out about Charlie Howard. I had the good fortune to meet people who had already done enormous research. I learned from a history professor and gay scholar, Dr. Howard Solomon, what happened before and after the murder. But for over a year, all I knew about Charlie was the mythic figure who died tragically. I had no sense of him as a person. I talked with many men, each telling me to talk to another man. But none of them knew him well. Then, by chance, someone told me about someone who knew him well and who lead the annual memorial for him each year. I called and met with Lois Reed, a church-member who knew Charlie well, about Charlie, what type of young man he was and equally what his killers were like. She gave Charlie a human face. I could see Charlie’s humor and vulnerabilities, his love of people and talking, his delight is high drama and theater, his courage in a time that disdain differences and being gay (the Reagan era) to be himself—flagrantly gay. Then, I went through court records, finding testimony from the trail. I read newspaper accounts from the gay newspaper and Maine newspapers. I read accounts of the events from different books. Fortunately, the youngest of the boys recanted and came to see what he had done. He also co-authored a books about his changes. In the book, I discovered, at the last moment, just as he and the other two were tossing Charlie over the bridge, he made eye contact with Charlie and realized what he was doing—killing another human being—and he tried to stop what was happening (too late) but he could never get Charlie’s eyes out of his head. That become the basis of the opera: his seeing Charlie when very few others did.

The Characters

As to writing lyrics for the music, I learned what other musical collaborators have learned in the past: that writing for music demands some very real and powerful changes in writing style and form. What I had to learn was first what play writers do: to capture the essence of a character in words and make the words, as they are shaped, someone mirror the person so the sound of the what they say and how they say mirror who they are as characters. Each character has to have a distinct sound not just musically but personally so that his words reflected his personality. And, in turn, the words could be used to set up dramatic tension. Since much of the story is about being seen and not being seen, in being recognized as being beautiful and in being scorned for being different, the language about seeing and believing was central to the dramatic thrust of the story. So how one character came to understand it was critical for resolving the inherent conflict between the characters so that, by the end, each character was seen. That is important for me since a story with redemption is a story with no hope. And I wanted this story, although tragic, although based on the evil that is bred from hate, to be one of redemption and hope.


Next another friend and the present Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, John-Michael Albert, who happened to be the first musical director for the Huston Gay Men’s Chorus and also a expert on opera, gave me advice about the layout of the musical opera. After looking over the initial draft, he told me to shift everything around—not to make it chronologically organized—that is, not base its structure on a linear time sequences. He had me shift in time, put in more playful juxtapositions of events. I had to find out how to make as much contrast and counterpoint as I could, so that in each act, in every scene, there was a change in mood and tone, shuffling humor with angst, meditative with elegiac, so that the libretto never wallowed in a mood.

Think as Composer

The next thing that I needed to do is change my way of thinking about words and language. I moved into a totally unfamiliar territory: learning to think how a composer thinks about words. For that, I had an amazing tutor, Tom Wallace.

Vowels and Consonants

The first thing I learned came in rewrites. When Tom first looked at the book (what they call the libretto), he said he liked it but could I add more vowels. I asked why and he said for a singer and songwriter, the vowels are the sounds that can be pulled out and have a fuller sound to them. So I rewrote it and jammed it full of vowels.

Timing of Words

The second thing I had to do was make it as concise as possible. Every word has a beat or two and each beat takes up time. So if I could cut a word, I did. Since, even a simple line such as “listen to the quiet of the water” if read takes up little time, 10 syllables; but, if sung, it goes like Listeeen to the quiiiet of the wwaater” with each syllable stretched out and taking more time.

Emotional Intent

The third thing I had to pay close attention to, and Tom made me do this, was to have each line and each word clear about its emotional intent. Good poetry often has within a very short space a number of emotional and tonal shifts, from a yearning to a self-loathing to an affirmation. I tend to do that in my writing, head off down one emotional street and end up in another. That is the delight of a poem, the surprise. But not if you are a composer who needs to locate what the meaning of a line is and transmogrify it into a tonal image in sound. He needs to know when line goes slowly and when it goes quickly, when it’s sad and when its angry because musical notes, scales and pace, the quarter notes and half notes, the fortissimo and the allegro—all the technical language of music—is telling a musician and singer what the mood of the number is, and, if it shifts in mood, so it shifts in sound, in volume, in pace and longevity. Of course, that was quite fun to discover because, as writers, we are always subconsciously aware of sound but, working with Tom, I had to be very conscious and make sure I understood what I was doing in each phrase.

Letting Go

And that last thing I needed to do was let go, give the words over to someone who would make them into something entirely different. It was like having your lowly words have an extreme make over. It was like watching your child set out of the card and walk off into her own life. It was like having faith that its shape would not be what you had imagined but something quite different and even better than you could imagined, which, having sung and hear it, I can testify it has. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.