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A lyricist is a writer who specializes in song lyrics, usually paid for by a band to write a custom song(s). A singer who writes the lyrics to songs is a singer-lyricist. This differentiates from a singer-songwriter, who also composes the song's melody in addition to the lyrics.


American songwriting

The Tin Pan Alley tradition is that tunesmith and wordsmith are usually different people, though some celebrated songwriters have performed both functions (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim for example). Among the leading lyricists of this period were Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, who both wrote with Richard Rodgers, Ira Gershwin who wrote with brother George, Johnny Mercer and Johnny Burke.

In recent years it is almost universal that songwriters are responsible for both words and music. John Lennon and Paul McCartney set the trend for performers taking responsibility for providing their own material. Country music pioneer Hank Williams and folkies Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger pointed the way for American artists from Bob Dylan onwards. Even specialists who write for somebody else to perform (the spectacularly successful Diane Warren for example) now tend to write both words and music.


Collaboration takes different forms. Some composers and lyricists work closely together on the song, with each having an input into both words and tune. Often a lyricist will fill in the words to a tune already fully written out. Dorothy Fields worked in this way. Lyricists have often added words to an established tune, as Johnny Burke did with the Erroll Garner tune Misty. Some partnerships work almost totally independently, for example, Bernie Taupin famously writes lyrics and hands them over to Elton John, who then sets them to music, with minimum interaction between the two men.

Religious songwriting

In the Christian hymn-singing tradition, many of the best-loved pieces have words written to fit existing melodies. The Christmas carol, What Child Is This, had its words set to an old English folk tune that formerly was a lover's lament, Greensleeves. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams famously set existing poems, by men like William Cowper and Charles Wesley, to traditional folk tunes to create hymns, many of which he published in the English Hymnal. A different way in which this happened was the marriage of non-related words and tune, the best-known example being The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States, with words written by Francis Scott Key strictly as a poem, which was later set to the tune of an old drinking song.

Classical music

In the field of art-song or lieder, things are slightly different. Here, a composer will write settings of poetry which already exists. Collaborations in the interactive sense are extremely rare. Examples of poets whose work has been used in this way include Walt Whitman, and A.E. Housman, whose poems have been set by diverse composers more or less ever since they were first published. The English composer Benjamin Britten is particularly famous for his settings of verse from many sources, for example, his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. The pioneer, at least as far as using solo piano as the accompaniment, was Franz Schubert, who set poetry by the likes of Goethe and Schiller, but whose late masterpieces Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise were settings of verse by his contemporary Wilhelm Müller and seen by many critics as collaborative peaks beyond the capability of either man on his own. Strictly speaking, the writer of the words should not be described as a "lyricist" in the normal sense of the term, as their work was created to stand alone, and they are unwitting participants in the song-writing process.

In opera, the librettist is responsible for all text, whether spoken or sung in recitative or aria.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Lyricist" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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