AS AN ACTOR, you’re called upon to analyze a script to create a strong character and tell a compelling story. You probably use a variety of methods to do this, such as finding dramatic beats, physical gestures, and emotional variation. Songs also require a broad range of musical and dramatic demands. When learning how to act a song, one effective strategy is to separate the text from the music, sometimes referred to as a “songalogue.”

Songalogues require you to examine the lyrics of a song without the melody, reimagining them as a monologue or spoken scene. The songalogue approach helps you quickly and deeply discover the world of the song using a combination of traditional text-based analysis — derived from classical acting training — and psychophysical methods drawn from the work of acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski. By dissecting lyrics to decipher the motivations and intentions behind them, you can break down a song’s meaning and uncover powerful emotions.


In the preface to his published collection of lyrics Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim writes, “Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems.” The difference lies in their purpose: Lyrics are supported by music, while poems are written to be read rather than sung. Yet, there are similarities between the two in the author’s use of language, scansion (line rhythms), rhetorical devices, and imagery. Song lyrics can reveal a character in the same way Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue can.

Classical acting focuses on bringing stories to life through the interpretation of a meticulously investigated text. The same goes for song lyrics. The singer-actor develops the psychology of the character through an action-based interpretation of the script.

In Acting is Action, Phillip Rayher attests, “The words are not in the way; the words are the way.” A lyricist will choose words to illuminate a specific character in a specific moment. It is important both to get the sounds of the words in your mouth and to pay attention to their order.

Lyrics align to the tempo, meter, and melody of a song. When isolating the text from the music, you may find yourself following the rhythmic pattern of the tune. You will want to discover the scansion, or the metrical pattern, of the text. Here you will find the intonation, tone, and stress of the words.

Rhetorical devices 
Writers use language to convey a point. They try to convince an audience by appealing to their emotions, ethics, or logic. Find which techniques are employed in your lyrics to transmit the writers’ perspective.

Writers also use literary devices to express ideas artistically. Vivid language appeals to our senses and deepens our understanding of a character’s situation.

Operative words 
You will need to decide which are the operative, or most important, words in each lyrical phrase. Your interpretation is built from your analysis of the text, giving you options for words and ideas you choose to emphasize and deemphasize.

A beat signals a change in a character’s emotion or motivation. You must make specific choices about where these shifts occur in the song.

Your understanding of the text reveals the character. You can make decisions about vocal resonance and articulation, pacing with appropriate pauses, and purposeful movement.

Musical audition photo from the 2019 International Thespian Festival
A songalogue approach helps actors make decisions about vocal resonance, articulation, pacing, and movement. Musical audition photo from the 2019 International Thespian Festival by Susan Doremus.


Stanislavski was an innovator who focused equally on the psychology and physicality of the singer-actor, which he described as psychophysical acting. Throughout the 20th century, Stanislavski’s ideas influenced theatre as we know it.

Sanford Meisner expanded upon Stanislavski’s concepts by encouraging actors to use their imagination as a practical tool. He also focused their attention on their scene partners rather than themselves. Below are aspects of his approach that apply to songalogues.

Identify facts built into the song’s lyrics. Avoid opinions to start. This will give you a basis through which the truth of your character can emerge.

Which other characters do you directly address? In some songs, you may be talking to yourself. If this is the case, make sure it’s an active conversation with your psyche.

Point of view 
Create a provocative opinion about your scene partner regarding the action of the song. Every moment you are onstage is an opportunity to reveal your character’s point of view.

Describe what happened the instant before the song begins, with evidence pulled directly from the script or from your imagination. Understand what causes this scene to occur.

Your character has a task to achieve. You must determine your goal in completing that task.

Identify the emotion or desire that begins the song, knowing it may change as the song progresses. Start with a simple emotion, such as joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, or disgust.

By identifying the psychophysical experiences of your character, you can decide how to achieve your objective and need. These decisions are explained with nonliteral action verbs. For example, you could “cut someone with your words” or “caress someone with your voice.” The possibilities are endless.

Photo from the 2019 ITF production of Bring It On.
A songalogue, like a monologue, affords actors the freedom to explore their imagination through bold choices and to improve their understanding of the overarching narrative. Bring It On photo from the 2019 ITF production by John Nollendorfs.


After you choose your operative words and dramatic beats, as well as your character’s intentions and motivations, you can create a monologue from the lyrics. Speak the text aloud until you feel confident with the words in your mouth and body. A songalogue, like a monologue, affords actors the freedom to explore their imagination through bold choices and to improve their understanding of the overarching narrative. You get to decide which complex ideas driving your character work best for you. In the absence of right and wrong answers, reason and imagination work together to facilitate an effective performance.

Once you’ve conceived a clear story, developed a fascinating character, and memorized the text, apply that work to the music. Music, like text, conveys drama, giving meaning to the internal and external feelings of a character. Though certain songs allow for improvisation, most music has precision, namely its pitches, rhythms, time signatures, and tempos. Musical notation defines the expectations, demanding a framework of time and space that may feel different from speech.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should forget the work you did while creating your songalogue. Instead, bring life to your song by combining your extensive character assessment with a crafted score. The decisions you made will give deeper meaning to the notes and rhythms on the page. You’ll arrive at a complete presentation by using a varied set of skills — including vocal, acting, and movement techniques — and by exploring multiple approaches to each dramatic and musical moment.

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