A Point of View: What’s the secret of writing great song lyrics?

by Adam Gopnik

  • 26 June 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Music score with the words
Having written words for someone else’s music, Adam Gopnik finds there’s a common factor behind all great lyrics, from Mozart opera to Taylor Swift. 

Everyone thinks he can write a song, and now I have. The haunted, wild look you see in the eyes of professional songwriters at cocktail parties rises from the popular idea that any of us, given the chance, can do what they do as well as they do it – the fur earmuffs you see them wearing even on the hottest summer days are there, too, from a desperate attempt not to have to listen to the songs the rest of us write and insist on playing for them. “I think I just feel how everyone feels, that I have three or four really great folk albums in me,” Hannah says complacently on the US television comedy Girls. Everyone thinks that.

But now I have done what all of us amateurs dream of doing – written words to someone’s music and heard it sung. Not a song alone, but an entire work – called (when I am in a puffed up mood) an oratorio, and when I am feeling more modest, a mere song cycle, and when I am feeling more modest still, a concept album, as yet unrecorded. It’s called Sentences, with music by the inspired young composer Nico Muhly, and seeing it premiere a few weeks ago, at the Barbican Centre in London goes high on my list of things I did that made my life matter – like the birth of a child, only with less sweat and better dressed.

The story we told was that of the great computer scientist Alan Turing, and it was sung by the amazing counter-tenor Iestyn Davies – but I won’t detain you with its genesis or my own sense of what in it works and what doesn’t. I will say that I was working on the libretto for the song cycle even as I was also writing the words for a musical comedy, properly so-called, and I discovered that in work meant or dreamed of for the commercial theatre, every syllable gets argued over. Is the emotional logic entirely lucid? In our Barbican-directed oratorio a great deal of indirection and obliquity was welcome. In our age, I’ve decided, the difference between entertainment and art is that in entertainment we expect to do all the work for the audience, while in art we expect the audience to do all the work for us.

But the deeper relation between words and music – the way they land in the listener’s ear, and then her soul – is more complicated than it seems. Music alone is puzzling enough – how it is that the mind makes sound into music and music into meaning is one of the big unanswered questions. No matter how hard we craft them for lucidity and shape and dramatic clarity – and it’s the good faith of the librettist’s art form to do so as elegantly as he can – music and words together exist in the end in an older realm of magic and enchantment, a place where the nursery rhyme and the church hymn and the pop single all meet. They work as spells do – that is, either entirely, or not at all. We sing and the magic door swings open, or it doesn’t, and there’s no explaining it. Three boys from Liverpool sing “She loves you, yeah, yeah yeah ” and the world turns off its axis. Had they sung, as Paul McCartney’s father wanted, “yes, yes, yes”, the old path would not have changed.

The Beatles in concert, 1964

Yeah, yeah. yeah. The Beatles in concert, 1964

The libretto writer, I should add at once, is merely the junior partner in the enterprise – or not even a partner, more like the man who sweeps out the candy wrappers from the theatre floor after the patrons leave. Who now remembers the name of the man who set the text for Handel’s Messiah? Well, it was Charles Jennens. The only libretto writer whose name anyone remembers – other than the great lyricists of the American musical theatre, the sacred law firm of Mercer, Loesser and Hart – is Lorenzo da Ponte, who is my hero. He was Jewish and a priest, and a Venetian and a New Yorker. It’s a sympathetic package, and he wrote for – more than “with” really – wrote for Mozart, the three operas that may well be the height of all artistic creation: The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni.

Lorenzo Da Ponte 1749-1838

Lorenzo da Ponte
  • Born Emanuele Conegliano, to a Jewish family in Venice. converted to Roman Catholicism in 1764 and was baptised with the name Lorenzo da Ponte
  • Ordained as a priest in 1773 but nevertheless fathered two children, and was subsequently banished for 15 years from Venice
  • Moved to Vienna where he scored Mozart’s best-known Italian operas – The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi Fan Tutte (1790)
  • Later moved to London and then the US where he ran a grocery store, gave Italian lessons and was eventually appointed professor of Italian literature at Columbia College

If the aliens arrived on earth from Neptune and asked me “what should we go out to see first that you humans have made?”, I think I would say Cosi Fan Tutte. (Though I also think I would add “Oh – and watch Cary Grant in North By Northwest” – but then the aliens would say, “Yeah: we saw that already on Neptune. Everybody in the galaxy has seen North By Northwest.”)

But a single touch of contrivance spoils it all. Any time we feel the authors creating coincidence or engineering emotion, making melodrama rather than musical drama – shoving incidents around rather than exploring character in collision with itself or another – we rebel inside. In Cosi Fan Tutte we accept the convention of disguised Albanians. But we accept it because Mozart writes his most sublime music for the silliest parts. If it sounded cute, we would rebel against it. That “yeah, yeah, yeah” mattered because it was exactly what such a boy would actually say to a friend about a girl. The smirk, or the hack’s weary knowing devices, are both enemies of enchantment and, without enchantment, music and words together mean nothing.

A 2009 production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, performed at the Salzburg Festival

A 2009 production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, performed at the Salzburg Festiva

Music is so emotionally overwhelming that it pushes the discursive and explanatory roles of language aside – and it is part of the job of the libretto writer to get out of its way. Even in Handel’s Messiah we recall lyrical fragments more than whole stanzas. “Unto us a child is born, “How beautiful are the feet…” “All we, like sheep”. When we think through our experience of our favourite oratorios, our most important pop songs, our favourite operas, they are almost always the experience of a forceful fragment – three or four words – “How beautiful are the feet”, or “Shake it off”.

It is a mysterious, semi-physical response, in which the audience does as much work as the artists. It works or it doesn’t. Small fragments of sound and sense strike our hearts as shrapnel strikes our skin. They lodge and wound us, independent of their intended trajectory. The audience responds or it doesn’t. The audience is less like a crew of supercilious analysts and more like a magnet set to one pole or the other. If the pole is right, the audience is drawn irresistibly to the sound on stage. If it isn’t, no amount of seduction or intelligence can draw them in, any more than a physical magnet can be made to adhere to metal by good will or affection. Sung words belong more fully to the world of ritual and routine, of incantation and mother’s murmurings, than to the fully lucid and well-lit world of argument. The words work or they don’t.

Sigrid Thornton in an australian production of A Little Night Music, 2009

Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” is sung by Desiree (Sigrid Thornton) in this 2009 production of A Little Night Music.

The one thing I have learned through the process is this – our minds make meaning out of music by not making too much meaning out of it. One learns as a librettist to tiptoe to the edge of argument, and then back off to the limbo-land of implication and indirection. The most popular lyric of Stephen Sondheim is, after all, the most offhand – a rueful farewell, but exactly to whom or exactly why we don’t always know. I hear the producer or the scriptwriter asking “Send in the clowns? Shouldn’t it be call off the clowns?” But in the clowns must come for reasons only clowns and composers know.

I have not learned why music matters most – but I have learned a great deal about the power of voices, the limits of language to insist and its power to invoke, and about the mysterious magnetism that passes between an audience and its art. Above all, I have learned that musicians are a superior race. We are lucky to share this planet – or any other – with them.

  • Adam Gopnik has lived in Paris and wrote the book Paris to the Moon

A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST

Van Morrison – in The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll!

‘Turn it up! Turn up your Rad-io!’ (Van Morrison – ‘Caravan’)

‘We were the War children – born 1945 ….’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wild Children’)

‘I can get your station when I need rejuvenation … Wavelength you never let me down’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wavelength’)

‘… I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry – the level of daydreaming; that he’s out to annihilate ego; that he’s after the same,’nothingness’ as Kavanagh was after ….’ (Paul Durcan)

Van Morrison is an only child. A child alone much of the time by inclination and perhaps vocation. A soul born to dream, to live in dreams and to birth those dreams in songs and singing – dreaming in God.

As a boy growing up in East Belfast he was close to the sea and the countryside. From his house, beyond his bedroom, he could hear voices echoing over the Beechie River and imagine the mist swathed shipyard towers looming out of the night as the foghorns guided ships safely home.

His head, heart and spirit opened up and welcomed dreams and intimations of an immortal world coexisting with the mortal world. Walking down Hyndford Street to leafy Cyprus Avenue he could be transported so that he was both thrillingly outside himself and strangely never so completely himself.

Dreaming those young man’s dreams he found sustenance for his creative imagination in the sights and sounds of his home city, its hinterland, and in sounds closer to home emanating from the radio and the HMV record player. The radio and the record player would become almost sacred objects.

The sounds they produced would enter deep into his consciousness, his soul; sounds he could never forget, sounds he would store as treasure and draw on for decades – fusing them through the mysterious alchemy of art into extraordinarily beautiful and affecting visions of his own.

And these visions have their genesis in the days before Rock ‘n’ Roll. The days of post war austerity. Days which could seem monochrome, mundane and stultifyingly metronomic. Days when a dreaming boy hunched close to the radio and the record player in search of a rainbow for his soul.

Together with fellow Irishman and fellow dreamer, poet Paul Durcan, he would dramatise those dreaming days in a song, ‘In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – a song which would catalogue some of the signposts of those dreams in a performance which has something of the hyper real, time slipping, giddy character of a waking dream. A performance which has me laughing out loud and punching the air with Joy as he hymns the stations and the musicians that called to him – that called his own unique voice into being.

‘In the Days’ is a dream that’s shot through with good humour, strangeness and charm. A dream that flows like a pure mountain stream strong enough to cut through stone yet gentle enough to dip your hand in. A stream you would surely want to let the goldfish go into!

A dream brought to vivid life over four days in the studio by an intimate quartet – Paul Durcan as the inspired/crazed narrator, Dave Early on drums, Steve Pearce on bass with Van Morrison on animating spirit, piano and vocals.

The sleeve notes tell me the song last 8 minutes and 13 seconds but that only records how long it lasts the first time you hear it – for once you’ve heard it it will be playing in your imagination and in your dreams for the rest of your life. Come aboard!

A Listeners guide:

Paul Durcan:

Paul Durcan is a maverick Irish poet who has been writing poems which fizz with emotional and literary energy for as long as Van has been writing songs which fizz with spiritual and musical energy. Durcan’s poetry speaks in an urgent conversational tone about almost every aspect of life not excluding the political, the sexual and the spiritual.

Reading a Durcan collection is to be taken on a thrilling literary roller coaster ride which will have you laughing and gasping as well as exhilarated and emotionally pummelled. He is a performance poet on the page as well as the stage addressing his audience as friends and fellow campfire sitters as he examines the crazy world we live in. He seems to me to be wholly mad and wholly sane simultaneously – ideal territory for a poet to occupy.

Who is Justin? Just a name plucked out of the air for its sound, its comparative rarity in a world awash with Jims and Georges and Pauls? Probably we will never know who this, ‘gentler than a man’ man was. Just a thought but it strikes me as not insignificant that an Irish poet from the latter half of the twentieth century would use a name which happens to be the little know second name of the greatest Irish poet of that era: Seamus Justin Heaney!

The Wireless Knobs/Telefunken

Vintage radios such as those made by the Telefunken Company in Berlin were gorgeously tactile objects. Radios, humming with valve power and gleaming with polished wood, bakelite and glass, softly lit, took pride of place in our homes in the days before Televisions took up their imperial dominance in our living rooms. No point and shoot remotes then! Radios were switched on and off and tuned to stations using knobs that clunked satisfyingly into position and dials that you set spinning to call up and capture sounds from distant lands beamed in from the ionosphere.

The very air crackled with possibility as you waited for the signal to settle as you settled down to laugh along your favourite comedians, sing along with your favourite singers, gasp at the heroics of your favourite detective or be amazed by a discovery as the spinning dial led you into imaginative territory you had never dreamed existed.

Radios conjured up dreams, created communities of interest and painted pictures that seared into our memories. Radio, despite all the technological developments of the last few decades remains the dreamers ideal companion. Tune in!

‘I am searching for … Luxembourg, Athlone, Budapest, AFN, Hilversum, Helvetia …’

One of the great pleasures of vintage radio was discovering what programmes were made by exotically named radio stations broadcasting from places which often had to be looked up on an atlas to see where they were! Not knowing what you might find and be introduced to was exciting and expanded our cultural horizons.

I’ll take spinning the dial over preset culture any day of the week: only listening to what you already know you like narrows your horizons and precludes the revolutionary discoveries that open up new worlds.

As you scanned the stations on the radio dial even reciting their names became a form of litany – clearly recognised above by Paul Durcan who has a genius for incantatory recitation.


Radio Luxembourg had a very powerful signal (on 208 metres Medium Wave) which washed tidally over the British Isles bringing many young people their first regular exposure to those new fangled musics their parents just knew were no good for them. Luxembourg, in contrast to the BBC, was a commercial station which meant it was happy to devote whole programmes to showcasing the new releases from record labels such as Capitol and Phillips.

On Saturdays at 8pm in 1956 (when Van was aged 11) you could listen to, ‘Jamboree’ – described as two hours of non-stop, action packed radio featuring ‘Teenage Jury’ and American disc-jockey Alan Freed with an excerpt from his world changing show, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’.


Athlone is a historic Irish town on the shores of the River Shannon. From the 1930s to the 1970s the principal transmitter for Irish radio was located in Athlone and the Irish national radio station came to be known on radio dials all over the world as Athlone. The fledgling Irish state was keen to promote native culture with Irish sports and traditional music being prominently featured.

Athlone is also the birthplace of the great Irish tenor Count John McCormack whose golden voice resounded all over the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. Like Van he had a voice that was able to express the normally inexpressible – a voice that could send shivers through the soul.

AFN (American Forces Network)

One of the spin-offs from the presence of GIs in Europe as a result of WW2 and the ensuing cold war was AFN whose broadcasts of American music could be listened to by Europeans hungry for the jazz and blues based music which was so hard to find anywhere else. Being near an American military base was a boon both for the likely strength of the signal and the possibility that personnel from the base might have records never seen in domestic stores.

Lester Piggott:

Lester Piggott (‘The long fellow’) was, as my Dad would have told you, the greatest horse racing jockey who ever lived. He won England’s premier race, The Epsom Derby, an almost unbelievable 9 times from 1954 as a teenager with, ‘Never Say Die’ through to 1983 when he won with, ‘Teenoso’. Lester Piggott became an almost mythical figure not just in the world of the turf but in the folklore of the nation.

Children and grandmothers who never opened a racing page in their lives would go into a bookmakers on the day of a classic race and simply say, ‘I’ll have five shillings on whatever Lester is riding!’ And, very, very often that turned out to be a very smart bet for no one was a better judge of what horse to ride than Lester Piggott and no one more capable of riding a race with ice cool expertise to ensure victory. Lester was a close mouthed man with a very dry sense of humour – he had no time for the hoopla of celebrity. He he lived to win horse races and he spoke horse with a fluency that’s probably never been matched.

Fats, Elvis, Sonny, Lightning, Muddy, John Lee!, Ray Charles:The High Priest! The Killer: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard.

Van Morrison was extraordinarily fortunate to be the son of a father who had lived in Detroit and who had a fabled collection of blues and Rhythm & Blues records young Van could immerse his thirsty soul in. As he says he heard Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon on the street where he was born. Leadbelly became his guiding spirit. A spirit he has remained true to over five decades and more of music making.

The radio brought to him and millions of others the original Rock ‘n’ Roll creators – the revolutionaries whose legacy will live for ever. The greater the distance we are from those giants of the 1950s the greater their genius is clear. They were the guides and spirits who befriended us – who turned on the coloured lights for whole generations. Their genius is lovingly celebrated in the roll call here to form an honours board of immortality.

There can be no doubt that Van Morrison has joined that company.

As the song fades back into the ether a transported Paul Durcan says:

‘We certainly got a lot of beautiful things in there Van’.

Truer words were never spoken.

The Immortal Jukebox

‘Turn it up! Turn up your Rad-io!’ (Van Morrison – ‘Caravan’)

‘We were the War children – born 1945 ….’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wild Children’)

‘I can get your station when I need rejuvenation … Wavelength you never let me down’ (Van Morrison – ‘Wavelength’)

‘… I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry – the level of daydreaming; that he’s out to annihilate ego; that he’s after the same,’nothingness’ as Kavanagh was after ….’ (Paul Durcan)

Van Morrison is an only child. A child alone much of the time by inclination and perhaps vocation. A soul born to dream, to live in dreams and to birth those dreams in songs and singing – dreaming in God.

As a boy growing up in East Belfast he was close to the sea and the countryside. From his house, beyond his bedroom…

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Virtual and Sometime Friends ( Really Careless Talk!)

INVOLUTION: Science and God: Reality Redefined

Virtual and Sometime Friends ( Really Careless Talk!)

I have taken a long silence in the past weeks. Many loose threads are now waving at me to be woven into some kind of order. Having briefed the court case and found the book judged ‘not guilty’ I was bereft of purpose. Bereft also of much conviction that anything else I could say would have the value that justified saying it.

Some of those threads. Casual Observations, all.

• Blogging.

Unlike cooking which presents the necessity at least once daily, there is no appetite for a blog that is reflective, philosophically reflective, or too argumentative, or too long. Guilty as charged m’lud. I have perhaps twelve faithful friends who read and comment, and some at extravagant length. That is most warming and I can answer at equal length and never write anything else. This might discourage others who prefer to mwah…

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Created within me Is the answer to the beginning of time,

Is there a start or finish, an ending or beginning to what’s mine.?

In many a direction I must be,

Everything travels through my darkness, who knows what their Is to see.

Older than anything, how long have I really existed,

Where did I come from, Is the answer a mystery never to be discovered.?

All things that live within my space,

Rotating forever, will they always be In this place.?

I am the universe, not knowing what I really am,

With no air or much light, not a visitor from your land.

I’ll stay here, whom can say just how long,

Perhaps till an end comes to my time.

Keith Garrett

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A roof over my head, a bed to rest my weary head,

Food on the table, a shower and a place to sit.

Healthy inside, a little money so i may survive,

A friend or two, love is really quite a miracle.

Not much do i want as this is about all i need or want,

Things that are still free to enjoy are in my sight.

The rising, morning sun is a sight taken much for granted,

See the sky, the clouds drifting by, look always up so high.

The wind would be beautiful to see, feel the winds beauty,

A smile during a falling rain, a gift with hope will always remain,

Not much do i want, simple things as i live each given day.

Keith Garrett

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