What does a Lyricist do?

For a long time, skilled wordsmiths with a real feel for music were precious commodities in the music publishing world, known for crafting beautiful lines and verses to enhance the work of songwriters and composers. Today, however, professional lyricists are a rare breed in the music industry, pushed out by decreasing revenue, an increasing number of songwriters who pen lyrics for their own tunes, and a generally declining demand for expertly crafted lyrics.
Lyricists are articulate and detail-oriented, with a keen eye for observing the world around them and the discipline to translate their observations and insights into the formal language of song.
The changing market for lyrics has required most professional lyricists to metamorphose into new career roles. Those who have an aptitude for singing and coming up with catchy melodies may work in the record industry as top-line songwriters. Similarly, skilled lyricists can be employed by music publishing companies as staff writers, where they work in teams with collaborators who pick up the musical slack. Additionally, a small number of lyricists make it as freelancers, pitching their work to publishers and collaborating with freelance songwriters, freelance composers, advertising and television producers, and music supervisors. In general, however, the days when lyricists could succeed in the recording and publishing industries on the strength of their verbal eloquence—without being able to play an instrument or write melodies—seem to be coming to an end.
That's not to say that there aren't opportunities for dedicated lyricists elsewhere. In the musical theater industry, lyricists work closely with musical theater composers and book writers to produce finished musicals. They're in especially high demand in the booming field of musical theater adaptation. Similarly, in the medium of opera, librettists are responsible for all of the show's text—which they might create by collaborating with a specific composer or by working on their own, almost as playwrights. Unlike musical theater lyricists, librettists also conceive the plot, characters, and dramatic structure of their librettos.

At a Glance

Career Path

Very few people work as dedicated lyricists today; those who do tend to work in specific roles like staff writer, top-line songwriter, performing songwriter, librettist, musical theater adapter, or musical theater lyricist. With hard work and dedication, these modern-day lyricist incarnations might write lyrics and melodies for top recording artists, become successful artists themselves on the strength of their own songwriting material, or collaborate on new theater and opera works.

Finding Work

Nowadays, there isn’t much work for dedicated professional lyricists in popular music genres. The notable exception is rap and hip-hop music, wherein many staff lyricists are employed to ghostwrite verses by major artists. Those interested in writing lyrics for pop, country, or R&B songs should pursue staff writing contracts with music publishers or find work as a top-line songwriter.

Professional Skills
  • Songwriting
  • Storytelling
  • Playwriting
  • Functional instrumental skills
  • Melody and harmony writing (top-line)
  • Singing
  • Networking
  • Time management
Interpersonal Skills

Lyricists are articulate and detail-oriented, with a keen eye for observing the world around them and the discipline to translate their observations and insights into the formal language of song. Because most lyricists work under a deadline, time management skills are often critical. Additionally, persistence and passion for the craft are vital. Lyricists who work in musical theater and opera must understand how to write to reveal character, drive plot, and create a sense of time and place.

Work Life

Staff lyricists keep conventional business hours and usually work from the publisher’s office or studio. Freelance lyricists have the freedom to make their own work hours, as do musical theater lyricists and librettists. Lyricists working in the record and publishing industries are likely to spend their evenings and weekends going out to hear music and network with people in the industry.

The Berklee Boost

Employers look for skills learned in the following Berklee programs.