Choosing Songs That Are Right for You

May 4, 2020 | By

Article #3 in this running series.

Photo: Shellen Lubin

What draws you to a song and why does it matter? If you like a song, shouldn’t you just go ahead and sing it?

Yes, it does matter. And depending on why you fall in love with a song, it may or may not be right for you. Songs may not work with the range or timbre of your voice, or with you, the character you’re working so hard to understand and shape. Let’s look just at age and experience. While it’s perfectly marvelous for someone who has had a long life and career to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from Follies, or Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” it can seem fairly ridiculous when sung by someone in their 20s. 

There are also many less obvious but equally challenging song choices. So, the more you understand about why you love a song, the easier it is to ascertain whether or not it is a good choice for you and for each show you put together. 

I remember directing someone’s cabaret acts years ago, and every time he brought me a song he wanted to sing, I asked him why he liked that song.  Most of the time he had absolutely no idea why. As I would parse out with him the elements of a song, we would figure out what it was about each song he loved. Sometimes it was the 16-piece band (which he was never going to have in his cabaret act), sometimes it was the backup vocals (which we added in over time). Sometimes it turned out it was just the sound of the singer’s voice on that song, which means we had discovered a sound he liked, but didn’t really need that song at all.

Key Elements of A Song

Here is a breakdown of the key elements of each song. Hopefully, these elements will assist you in understanding what draws you to each particular song while helping you determine whether or not a song is a good choice for what you’re trying to express.

The Lyric 

The lyric of a song can be: a) a monologue occurring in a specific dramatic moment; b) a story being told about one or more other moments in time; or c) a more abstract expression of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and/or mood. 

Monologues and stories are the most naturally theatrical, but all can be dramatic when framed and delivered in a context that works for you. When a lyric moves you deeply, it can be the easiest way to find your way into a song, and to find your own take in the performing of it. We live in a verbal universe, and words are the most common way into understanding and connecting for most of us. This is often a great way to find songs that are right for you. 

The Music 

The music of a song is the next most common reason for loving a song, however if the lyric is completely wrong for you, the music is not enough on its own to dispel the incongruity for an audience. The music itself has multiple aspects, some of which are immutable, some pliable, and some which can be completely altered. 

Let me clarify something here. When I am talking about the lyric and music of the song, I am talking about the song as it was written, not any particular rendition. Any one individual recording of a song and the song itself are not the same thing; in fact, they even have a different copyright codification. The recording is a ⓟ (mechanical rendition) and the song is a ⓒ (written material). You can think of it like this: The song itself is a road map, marked with a route from one place to another. The way that song is sung and played is everything else about your trip: the kind of car you’re driving, who is in the driver’s seat, who else is in the car, what else you bring with you on your journey, and where you stop along the way.

So now we’ll talk about those aspects of the music that you hear which are actually the song itself. First of all is the melody. When you take the melody by itself (sung a cappella—voice only, with no instruments), you discover just how much the heart and character of the song reside in the melody alone. Melodies can be simple, have big jumps, or have staircase lines of common or unusual scales up and down. However they move, they either color and illuminate the feeling already in the lyric, or counter it, giving a completely different color and subtext to the words. Whether they work with the lyric or against it becomes very important once the song is being arranged and interpreted.

Then there are either chords or specific written music that accompanies the melody. These also can move with the lyric or counter it, but they can also move with or counter the melody. When your accompanist plays sheet music exactly as written, you are keeping the composer’s original intent for not just what the chords are, but how they are voiced and within what rhythm. When you hear a song, sometimes you’re hearing the original accompaniment, and sometimes a re-arrangement. (Think Glynis Johns singing “Send in the Clowns” from the score of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Jonathan Tunick’s arrangement of it for Judy Collins’ interpretation of the same song.)

There may also be harmonies that are sung or played by additional instruments. If you’re going to have additional singers and/or musicians in your show, you may decide how much you want to use the original harmonies or alter them for your interpretation of the song. But, for the purposes of this analysis, how much of what you love about the song is that flute solo? Or the cello playing through the verse? Or those fabulous vocal harmonies? Again, these are part of the journey and not the road map. A large part of that journey is the arrangement. The rest is the performance itself.

The Arrangement and Performance of the Song

The mood of a song is to some degree intrinsic to its very nature. At the same time, it’s also created and crafted by the arrangement and performance. The mood the song puts you in when you listen to it may be a function of the lyric and/or the melody, and at this point you should be able to know how much of each. It also might be the singer, the singer’s interpretation of the song, and how the singer’s voice affects you. If it’s not any of those things, it’s probably the arrangement.

If what you discover is that you love the arrangement of a song, you may be learning more about your musical tastes than your actual song tastes. The arrangement includes the key, the tempo, the rhythm, and even the “genre” of the song. It also includes the instrumentation, both the number of instruments and the choice of which instruments—and the back-up vocals, if there are any.

The arrangement of a song can be changed to some small or large extent when you perform it. The major exception to this is in a theme or tribute show, when you are honoring a specific writer or performer, and the objective is to be authentic to the original intent of both the song and the designated artist’s presentation and recording of it. Also, when a song is virtually unknown, you may want to perform it as close as possible to its original rendition, to introduce it to audiences.

The Necessity of Diversity in Song Choices

Although every genre has songs that can work beautifully on a cabaret stage (yes, even punk, new wave, disco, and rap), a show will suffer if every song has the same message, the same musical line, the same accompaniment, and the same tempo and rhythmic feel. 

Since you’re cultivating knowing yourself as a character of depth and breadth to portray onstage, it will serve you well to pick songs that illuminate different aspects of that character.  This allows the audience to get to know multiple dimensions and layers of who you are and how you see the world. Different perspectives in lyrics, and different tempos and feels in music, broaden and deepen our experience of you.

Songs You Should Avoid

Here are some general rules for songs you should avoid altogether:

  • Songs that are identified with a specific performer, especially if you’re performing them in the same arrangement. The exception is if you’re performing the song(s) as that performer in a tribute or theme show.
  • Songs that say the exact same thing as every other song in your show. How many songs can we hear in a row about unrequited love, or how wonderful (or difficult, or ridiculous) life is?
  • Songs that are in the same tempo and musical feel as everything else in your show.

Songs You Should Think Carefully About Including

  • Songs that put you down, because, well, why do you want to put yourself down? Unless these songs are given a strong context or dramatic moment in which they sit, you are actually telling the audience that you’re not in command or control, and that you’re probably not very good at what you do. This can easily make an audience feel unsafe and even uncomfortable. “Everything Happens To Me” and “Nobody Does It Like Me” can both be great in context, but are very risky without one, for this reason. (This includes in an audition, where they are both far too often used.)
  • Songs that are incredibly repetitive, and intended for sing-along and listening, not for a solo performer. (Unless, of course, you’re doing a sing-along! “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Kumbaya” are two natural examples.)
  • Songs that are written in a specific dialect that is not natural to you. (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” and “Ol’ Man River” are often altered to allow a singer to perform them, but the dialect is written into both songs.)
  • Songs that are obviously meant for someone very different from you. (Okay, you can do them if you create a strong context, with complete understanding of the lyric, using what the song says to convey something new and different.)

These are not hard and fast rules, they’re merely food for thought. And just by virtue of the fact that you think about them, you will make better and more interesting choices.

Author’s Note: We encourage your comments and questions on song selection! Coming up:  More on arrangements and interpretations once you’ve selected your songs. 

Category: Cabaret Handbook

About the Author ()

Shellen Lubin  is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote.",, @shlubin

Comments are closed.