Behind the Notation: Lyrics


Are you the kind of person who mainly remembers the lyrics of a song, or do you remember the tune more readily? Or both equally? This article will be of special interest to the “lyrics-oriented” among you, but it’s important for anyone writing down music with words, whether it’s bluegrass, opera, choral music, or Indonesian pop. If those lyrics have been written along with the tune (not always the case — some songbooks assume you know the tunes and include only the lyrics), then someone somewhere had to grapple with the question: “how do I write this so the singer will know exactly how to line up the lyrics with the notes… even if they have never heard the song before?” Of course singers often know the song already, so the sheet music serves partly as a memory aid. But a fundamental purpose of music notation is to serve as a complete blueprint for re-creating music from scratch, entirely from the score. If you are the composer or arranger, assuming that the reader has never heard the music before is the best way to ensure your score is as clear and elegantly written as it can be.

Writing lyrics can be tricky because it’s not always obvious how they should line up with the notes. If you get it wrong, you may confuse the singer and get some unexpected results. This article reviews the basics of lyrics notation, then delves into deeper mysteries such as beaming and syllabification.


There are a few conventions of lyric-writing, passed down to us through the centuries, that Noteflight handles for you… if you are using Noteflight correctly. Be sure to read this section in our User Guide.

1. Lyrics go below the staff, except in unusual circumstances.
2. Each syllable lines up vertically under the note or group of notes on which that syllable is sung.
3. Dashes (hyphen key) separate syllables within the same word.
4. Spaces (space bar) separate different words.
5. An underscore line (underscore, or shift-hyphen) continues to the last note of a melisma (many notes on one syllable) – as in a single-syllable word or the final syllable in a word.

For these elements to look right in your score, you need to use our special kind of text designed for Lyrics: select a note, click the little “la-” icon on the Object Editing Palette, and start typing your lyrics, using spaces and hyphens between syllables and words at the right moments. The most often-missed of these is the continuation-underscore lines at the ends of words.

Here is a sample showing the same tune written three times: the first version has several mistakes; the middle one is pretty good but still leaves out some important elements — this one is typical of how many scores on Noteflight look — and the third version has some further corrections, for a beauteous result.

Can you identify all the errors in Versions 1 and 2?

Errors in Version 1:
– “-mazing” is two syllables with no dash between them, and that’s a problem. A single note can’t have more than one syllable except in special cases. And in this case, doing this leaves two notes without any lyrics at all!
– “li-ke”: single-syllable words, and individual syllables, should not break up into separate vowels and consonants. Try singing the word “li-ke” and you’ll see why: if you take it very literally, it is telling you to sing only a closed consonant “-ke” on that note: nearly impossible, though it sounds a bit comical to try!

Time out for an Eternal Truth of Vocal Writing! You can sing on a vowel, but it’s much harder to sing on most consonants, except open, voiced ones like mmmm, ngggg, or nnnnn.

Version 2 looks pretty good, but examine it carefully to see why it still needed the corrections seen in Version 3:
– Slurs and extension/underscore lines were missing in Version 2 on “-ing”, “a”, and “like”. These are always needed on multi-note syllables (some music editors omit the slurs, but no one knows why they engage in this mysterious behavior; you should always include the slurs).
– For words ending in “-ing”, the “-ing” should go by itself. It’s just usually easier to read.
– Oh, and there was a little typo in Version 2: the missing dash in “amazing.” Those little dashes are very easy to miss – especially when they are missing!

And that’s just the beginning. There is more you will need to keep in mind — things that Noteflight can’t correct for you — to make your scores look correct, clear, and beautiful.


In a vocal part, dynamics go above the staff. This is for the simple reason that if they are below the staff (as is correct in instrumental parts) they compete for visual attention with the lyrics, and can too easily crash into the lyrics (music notation is like traffic safety: try to avoid objects crashing into each other). This includes all expression-related items: dynamic markings such as p, ff, etc; expression markings such as espressivo, cresc., and dim., and “hairpin” markings showing crescendos and diminuendos.

Noteflight places dynamics below the staff by default (since it is the default the rest of the time), so you will need to move the first one manually up — the best way is by using the up-arrow key. But after that a newly-created expression text item (which includes dynamics) will automatically appear in the same location as the previous one, so you won’t need to move each one. If you do need to move a lot of dynamics at once, use the Filter tool in the Edit menu to select them, then the up arrow.

A frequent question we get is: how to create a second, third, and fourth line of lyrics for additional verses? This is in our User Guide but is worth reviewing here: just double-click the first syllable of your lyrics to get the blinking cursor, hit the return/enter key, and continue typing to enter your next verse.

Melisma is Not a Malady

When more than one note occurs on one syllable it’s called a melisma. If that syllable is in the middle of a word, keeping hitting the hyphen key to add dashes until you get to the next syllable (there can be any number of dashes); if it’s at the end of a word, use an extension line (underscore). Make sure to put a slur over all the notes in your melisma.

If one syllable can have more than one note, can one note have more than one syllable? Almost always, no. But there are some exceptions. As our User Guide points out, some languages such as Italian have elisions between words. To add two syllables or words on one note, use the plus sign (+) for the space between the words (when you exit the blinking cursor, the + will disappear).

To Beam, or Not to Beam?

In older printed editions of vocal scores, you will often see beams joining notes that fall under one syllable, while separate syllables have separately flagged notes and no beams. Singers will tell you: that old way is really hard to read, and it’s not longer done this way. Instead, use regular beaming to show the beat divisions (check out our earlier article on that topic), and slurs to show melismas:


Probably the trickiest topic in writing lyrics is how to divide the words into syllables. This article only discusses syllabification in English; tackling other languages is just too long a topic to fit here.

Especially Welsh.

But even English has many a conundrum to keep the lyricist busy. For example, you have probably found yourself wondering on more than one occasion, “is it sup-er-ca-li-fra-gil-is-tic-ex-pi-a-li-do-cious? or su-per-cal-i-frag-i-list-ic-exp-i-al-i-doc-ious?’ Mary Poppins wants to know.

This is where lyric notation is more of an art than a science — that is, there is some room for disagreement among experts. However, there are some agreed-upon norms that you should follow.

The simplest rule of thumb is that lyric syllabification follows the syllabification in the dictionary. According to Oxford Dictionaries online, it’s:

Meanwhile, at least one version of the musical score has it:

Why those small differences? “-cal-i-” or “-ca-li-“? “-fra-gil-” or “-frag-il-“? And how to choose? These are among the many things that keep Mary Poppins up at night. The choice involves where to place the consonants, and the guiding principle should be: what’s easiest for the singer to read? But that isn’t always obvious. What are the pros and cons in a given case?

A commonly-seen and (on the face of it) logical choice is to put each consonant on the note on which the singer will actually be sounding that consonant: so in the Mary Poppins song “-ca-” would go on one note, and “-li-” on the next note; similarly, “-fra-” then “-gil-“. But this approach doesn’t always give the most readable result, because consonants before and after a vowel determine which version of that vowel we use.

Let’s illustrate this with a different example. What if you were a singer sight-reading this piece you’ve never seen or heard before, and there is a page turn in the middle of a word, like this:

That mu- presents you with a fateful choice! Your career could hang in the balance! If the word is “music,” you should sing “myoo” but if it’s “mutton” you should sing “muh“. The composer has not given you enough information!

Luckily, vegetarians can rest easy, because here it is rewritten with the consonant where it belongs:

If that syllable were “mut-” you still don’t know the whole word yet, but at least you know which vowel to use. Words with double consonants between syllables are nice because you can put each consonant on one of the syllables: mut-ton.

All that said, this is not an exact science: “mus-” wouldn’t have entirely clarified things: it could have been “mustard” — which incidentally goes great with mutton (vegetarians, you are not entirely safe). But it’s better than “mu-“.

For a word with two syllables that each have their own separate starting/ending consonants, like “shoulder,” the word should be split with each syllable intact: shoul-der.

Si-nging? No.

As noted earlier, for words ending in “-ing” the main part of the word stays unified and “-ing” goes by itself. For example: sing-ing not si-nging (that one might be obvious); glid-ing not gli-ding. This is also an exception to cases where two different consonants might otherwise easily divide up two syllables: it should be stand-ing not stan-ding.

Climb Ev-er-y Mountain?
How about words with lots of letters squished into one syllable, and words that can be sung with different numbers of syllables depending on how you do it? An example of both quandaries at once is every. Is it three syllables: ev-er-y, or two? There is no simple rule here: it comes down to the composer’s/arranger’s choice. If you want the singer to use two syllables, then should you write it ever-y, or ev-ery? Collective wisdom suggests ev-ery, but opinions may vary. Or as some older editions might have it: ev’-ry.

How about “gathering”? It should probably be gather-ing, even though the first syllable seems to have two syllables, a singer will likely sing it in two syllables as “gath-ring”. But don’t write it that way. Or maybe it should be an exception to the “ing” rule: “gath-ering.” You decide!

Again, syllabification is an art, not a science. Just be sensitive to the problems that can arise, look at a lot of scores (especially professionally published ones), and keep in mind these few basic principles. Nasty syllabification problems may be among the things that keep Mary Poppins awake at night, but at least we can agree on how many syllables supercalifragilisticexpialidocious has.

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