Words for Music

MCMP-309 and 609 

Marc Lowenstein, Instructor




Words for Music is a course designed to give us an opportunity to rigorously, playfully, and critically explore how words can interact with music. Students will develop an understanding of how musical time affects the perception of words and how words and syntax interact with the perception of musical ideas.

Of course it is impossible to completely cover a topic like this. But this class is dedicated to the old proposition that some combination of organized thoughtfulness and hard work can help us notice and take advantage of creative inspiration.

So, we will not attempt to be comprehensive, but will try to organize the rather large amount of work in such a way that will help us develop tools for working more and better in the future.

Collaboration will be important and the course is open both to composers and to writers as well. Writers will be paired with different composers, and in addition to writing their own texts will be required to write analyses of historical and contemporary musical lyrics. Composers will also be asked to write a significant amount of text to be set to music and will additionally be asked to set music to their own texts and to the texts of their assigned writing partners. A broad range of musical and verbal styles will be explored, both popular and historical, and writing for the musical stage will be explored in depth as well.


Compassionate Criticism

As with the Songwriting class I lead, a large part of this class will be practicing a kind of criticism that might help you become a better composer and writer.  This kind of criticism varies from person to person, but a crucial element is recognizing that not only is the expression of music and text a personal act, but that your reactions to texted music is also a personal thing.  Therefore a certain kind of openness and compassion is required when judging your colleagues’ words and music. Because you are all decent people, that is not too difficult.  What requires a subtler, more difficult discipline, though, is using that same quality of judgement to help you look at your own work with a gentle yet fierce combination of dispassionate analysis and compassionate presence. 

Ideally, the ability to compassionately criticize the words and music of others in class can help you realize what choice you have as to what kind of voice you will use when talking to yourself about your own work.



There is a startling amount of work required for this class. 

Please remember that I am resolute in my goal of winning the twin competitions I have with Rob W.: "Most Homework Assigned" and "Most Homework actually completed". And while that assertion is mostly joking, I do believe that the only way to learn about your creativity is to create a lot. A lot a lot. 

So, you should count on having to write 

•a series of guided exercises each week. 

•about two to four complete song lyrics each week 

•about two to three short analytical papers over the course of the semester dealing with critical methods of analysis as well as broader, cultural issues.

•a self analysis of your efforts at the end of the course

And you should expect to compose and ‘record’ 

•about two songs per week.

•The composed songs should be very sketch-like in their production. Simple piano or guitar chords plus a vocal line are fine, and crazy-simple garage band recordings are fine -- especially if it helps you not get bogged down in production. Of course, if you wish, you can make fuller productions of songs, but please don't if it means you write less.  At the end of the semester I will ask you to more fully produce +/or perform a few of your favorites.

•Folks who self-identify more as 'writers' than 'composers' should expect to do the same as above, but will substitute more and longer analytical papers for some of the songs, although it will be a great learning experience to try to set just a few of your lyrics to music even (especially) if you have no experience in music composition. 

•All homework should be shared as a google document or an mp3 in google drive. I will assume that you are OK with sharing these documents with the whole class unless you tell me otherwise --it's perfectly fine to want to keep your writings private, just let me know. (In other words, it's an opt-out situation.)

•Please title all documents “YourName.Words for Music Assignment[X]” so they can be easily sorted. I strongly prefer that all assignments be uploaded to your shared google drive folder, but exceptions can be made.



There are three required texts for this class: 

The Poetry of Pop by Adam Bradley. It is the only book I have seen on pop lyrics that is inclusively analytical yet relevant. It has an infectiously enthusiastic tone and I will ask you to have read it within the first three weeks of the semester.

Writing Better Lyrics and Songwriting Without Borders by Pat Pattison. These are in many ways the opposite of Adam Bradley’s book. They are a kind of how-to volume of various techniques that are useful for writing more or less mainstream lyrics (er, whatever that means . . . ) If you can marry the books' advice to your own aesthetic and critical thinking, it can be powerful.


There are several other books I will reference and which I suggest you should read. Among those are:

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics by Charlotte Pence et al. is another book that is more obscure and a bit more academic and uneven, but parts of it are very worthwhile. It is a great introduction to how revelatory a critical analysis can be.

Break, Blow, Burn  by Camille Paglia is a wonderfully lyrical book about creative ways to read a diverse collection of poetry. Although this is not a poetry class, this full-throated approach to finding personal and cultural meaning in condensed writing forms is inspiring.

Reading Lyrics by Gottlieb and Kimball is more of a compendium than an analysis, but dovetails nicely with the Poetry of Pop as it concentrates on pop music from 1900-1950. I won't require it, but if you are interested, it's an excellent resource.

In addition, Theft is an excellent comic-book about borrowing in music. Its perspective is both relevant and liberating. I highly recommend reading it.



Assessment will be ongoing. Much of the class will be about how best to engage your self-assessment in a sea of work. Because of that, attendance is crucial. Unexcused absences will result in a lowering of grades and, after an astonishingly small number, a gentle suggestion to withdraw from the class. I care much more about your work than your grades, and I trust you do too, but maybe it's useful to have some sort of barometer? So:

A High Pass will acknowledge an excellent  dedicated effort, a near-perfect attendance, and a prolific grasp of different styles of texted music.

A Pass will acknowledge a dedicated effort, a near-perfect attendance, and a good grasp of different styles of texted music

A Low Pass will acknowledge a certain effort, a not quite perfect attendance and an attempt to grasp different styles of texted music

A No Credit will acknowledge that you might have different priorities than this class.

An Incomplete will be very hard to get outside of extraordinary personal circumstances.. Just, you know, do the work.


Classroom Attendance and Demeanor

Do come to class. Do be kind and thoughtful. Do be relatively on time. Do not leave in the middle of class time. And please do not use digital devices in class unless the use is specifically relevant to the immediate topic at hand. I am happy to help you manage your addiction by providing a comfortable resting place for your phone during class.