Kristine L Ming

What’s the secret of writing great song lyrics?

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.

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