Lead sheet conventions - lyrics - advice please!

Hi all, open question to those with experience in writing song lead sheets, or musical scores with multiple verses of lyrics.

I have very different phrasing on a lot of verses in the songs for the musical I’m writing. I want to ensure that the phrasing I’m writing is adhered to as much as possible, and whilst I will be in control of the first production I may not be for subsequent shows. Is it generally a case of writing the entire score linearly so that each verse melody can have the exact phrasing attached to the lyric? Instead of using repeats and sections with several lines of lyrics stacked? I’m trying to imagine (not having their phone numbers handy…) what Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber does with a new production - are they phrase dictators? Given great singers of course I guess there’s always some lee-way, but initially, I’m assuming the composer is god in this matter?

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve written for voices other than your own (a new venture for me as a singer-songwriter who has never written for others). It’s fascinating hearing some of the audition tapes already coming in (we launch in May 2020) based purely on a demo version sung by me, and not from a score. Some simply don’t get it. Others try and can’t get it…and phrasing - is ------ every - thing…!


Absolutely, convention is moving further and further away from repeats. If you can write it out, do. Especially since there are differences in each repeat. That’s what I do.

Thanks Dan, good to know. Stocking up on printer ink now…

For something like a musical score, it makes sense to write each verse out unless they’re rhythmically identical. If there’s a particular requirement, for instance, to squeeze content onto a two-page spread, then there are other options which are worth considering.

As for dictating the exact rhythm of phrases: the degree to which a given singer will adhere to your choice of rhythms for a particular verse depends both on your ability to write singable rhythms, and the singer’s ability to read and interpret them correctly. If you want the singing to flow naturally, I’d tend to avoid over-prescribing rhythms in minute detail, because music notation is not really (imho) up to task of capturing the nuanced way that a singer will interpret a phrase rhythmically. If you over-notate it, then you can create confusion without improving the result, and you can also risk giving the impression that you want the singer to adhere to your rhythm even at the expense of communicating the lyrics as authentically as possible. The Great American Songbook writers tended to write fairly simple rhythms, which the singers were then at liberty to interpret for maximum dramatic effect. If you were to try to notate that interpretation in advance, then you’d tend to end up with a mess, I think.

Interesting comments Dan from Australia.

Yes I’d agree with the inability of scores to convey real phrasing, it is a limitation.

As to keeping it simple, well, as a professional singer for over 40 years, I’ve learnt a thing or two about phrasing, and have certainly developed my own very keen sense of what works for me, as a singer who only sings his own songs. (A minor hit in your country in ‘89…). In writing a musical I’m of course imbuing the melodies with this experience, and having listened to the flat, da da da da renditions of early auditionees and workshops, I’m determined to at least set a benchmark. So for example where a lovely triplet feel allows the words to fall from the tongue, there’s no way I’m going to write that as anything other than triplets. I guess it all depends on the definition of simple. I have a split musical heritage in that I’m a rock n roll composer who took a PhD in electro-acoustic composition after 30 years of R n R. In doing so I came across wonderful “paper” composers working at the extremes of extended techniques for instruments; in other words an enforcement of detail and articulation in the composition that very much “stamped” the composers’ intentions upon the performer. I think that the score, once out there for anyone to mount a production, needs to be fairly explicit - but I obviously accept the fact that singers of various skills will interpret differently anyway. Additionally, the debut production at Brighton Fringe in 2020 will have a range of singers - some with Musical Theatre background and good readers, some with no reading ability at all. So the score will need to reflect as accurately as possible the guide version mp3s sung by me - otherwise the readers are going to say…“hang on, that’s not what you wrote!”

It will be an interesting process as it develops. But good to know that my original thoughts about linear scoring are confirmed!