Understanding Musicals part 3 – Function of song & text

Here’s part 3 of our substantial piece on musicals written for Rhinegold Publishing. This section is on the function of song in musicals, and was written as a starting point for a class discussion on song and singing in real life. Check out the exercises on song & text, and the role of music and word-setting, at the end of each section.

The function of song and text

The use of music heightens any situation – music is used in films to support the existing emotion or subvert it (an apparently normal scene might have creepy music as underscoring). So when a character in a musical suddenly bursts into song, something of major importance is happening or is about to happen. But what differentiates musicals from opera, since both are dramatic forms with songs and music?

Both opera and musical theatre forms can explore the highs and lows of human experience, but they do it via different means. Musicals tend to be text-driven with detailed lyrics and strong scripts (books). Opera tends to be voice-driven, with large-scale, technically demanding vocal vehicles and an emphasis on both musicianship and grand emotions. It is interesting to note that in recent years the two forms have begun to merge, with contemporary operas using more colloquial scripts, and contemporary musicals (such as Les Misérables) being through-composed with very little unsung script. It is so unusual for people to burst into song at the drop of a hat that contemporary television programmes, including the excellent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – ‘Once More With Feeling’, have both used and subverted the idea. So when do we sing spontaneously?


  1. Ask the class to come up with different ‘real life’ (i.e. not performance) situations in which people sing. Examples might be:
    • in worship and other forms of ritual
    • at a football match
    • singing a lullaby to a child
  2. Discuss what motivates the person or group to sing in this context. Is anything achieved through singing the song (what effect does it have on the listener/singer)?
  3. Think of examples in performance art where song is used in real-life contexts – plays, musicals, films, cartoons – and what effect this might have on the audience

Follow this up with this exercise:


  1. Think of an individual song that you like – it should not be from a musical (for example, Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful).
  2. Create a context for the song, using an event from your own experience.
  3. Discuss what purpose the song might serve in your imagined situation – is there an outcome? Does something change as a result of the song?

Song and text

Composers working with text have special decisions to make, whether they write their music before the lyricist (Richard Rodgers with Lorenz Hart) or after (Richard Rodgers with Oscar Hammerstein). In general, word setting in musical theatre sticks quite closely to the shapes and cadences of speech – more so than operatic vocal writing. Here are two exercises that will help develop insight into the special role of music in musical theatre (as opposed to staging or action); insight into word-setting and an understanding of the emotional messaging of music. Use these exercises to discover how different composers tackle the issues of song writing.


Exercise 1

Choose a solo song from two different musicals, preferably written at least 20 years apart.  Discuss the following points:

  1. Does the composer set one note or more than one note on each syllable?
  2. Does the melody stress each word as it is spoken, or does it change the stress (emphasising an unimportant syllable by putting it on a strong beat or a higher or longer note)?
  3. How has the composer demonstrated the most important part of each sentence (higher or longer notes, different rhythms, large pitch intervals)?
  4. What emotions has the composer chosen to emphasise in each sentence, and how has he achieved that using musical and rhythmic notation?
  5. Now take the lyrics and read them aloud separately, as if they were in a script. Discuss whether it is easy or difficult to read the words without using the rhythm that the composer has set.

Exercise 2

Allow 20–30 minutes for this part of the lesson. A pre-recorded version of the song is really useful. Prepare a version in which the melodic line is clear and the harmonic structure honoured. You may need to play the accompaniment with melody several times or may prefer to use a pre-recorded version. This exercise can be completed alone or in class.

  1. Choose a song from a musical and play it to the class. It is essential that the song is presented without the words first, using song accompaniment scores. The class learns the melody without the words, exploring it vocally and instrumentally, as appropriate.
  2. Discuss possible emotional messages generated by the music.
  3. Decide what words they would like to write to this melody, and write them down.
  4. The song is performed with each pupil’s words either as a solo or in an ensemble, as appropriate.
  5. The class then listens to a performance of the original and comments on the success of the combination of song and text. How appropriate is the word setting, form, shape and feel?


To find out more about how we deal with song and text in Musical Theatre, watch our Mastering Musical Theatre masterclass in the Learning Lounge online