A lyricist creates the words, or lyrics, of a musical composition, often in collaboration with a composer who creates the melody line. A successful lyricist often has a background in both music and creative writing, since the lyrics of many songs use the same structure and emotional depth as poetry. A lyricist can work independently, with a songwriting partner, or as part of a commissioned team of artists for musicals and films.
In order to become a lyricist, a person should take a variety of both musical and literary courses in high school in order to develop both sets of skills. Creative writing courses and musical composition or theory classes should help a future lyricist understand how music and writing combine. While only a few universities and colleges actually offer courses in lyric writing, a lyricist can study creative writing and modify those skills to meet the needs of a composer or producer.
A successful lyricist such as Bernie Taupin may work independently from his composer, in this case singer Elton John. Once a new set of lyrics is complete, the lyricist may submit them to a composing partner who sets those words to music. The lyricist and the composer generally share publication credits once the finished composition is released to the public. A lyricist during the Tin Pan Alley days of popular songwriting might have also worked in a regular office with other lyricists and composers.
Essentially, a lyricist creates the imagery and literary theme of a song while the composer paints the musical picture. Sometimes a composer may have a melody line without lyrics and a lyricist will construct a song from it. Other times a lyricist or poet may complete an entire song, but have no concept of an appropriate melody line. Many lyrics are designed to be topical, or at least familiar to a target audience.
As with other creative fields, a few lyricists enjoy significant commercial success while many others work in relative obscurity. A lyricist may receive a percentage of royalties from sales of a hit song, or else he or she may be paid a flat rate for services rendered. Some music companies still keep staff lyricists and composer on their payroll, but most songwriting teams work independently. A movie studio or professional theater could hire a lyricist to work with other composers and musicians on a project, as well.
A professional lyricist often explores other genres of creative writing as well, especially poetry, drama and fiction. Some lyricists also work on larger projects, such as operas or musicals. A number of professional songwriters also become well-known performers themselves, singing their own compositions to an appreciative audience.