[Skip to Content]

Grant Program Description

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is partnering with Playbill, Inc. to launch a Songwriting Challenge that will enable high school songwriters to:

  • Try out a new form of creative expression
  • Showcase and refine skills and talents
  • Compete for mentorship opportunities with professional songwriters and musicians, and
  • Compete for the experience of having an original song performed by professional musicians, and
  • Have a chance to be one of the top three finalists, win scholarship money and have your song be published by Sony.

This Songwriting Challenge focuses on songs that could appear in a musical. Today’s musical theater features songs of all genres (think of Hamilton, Jersey Boys, On Your Feet!, Spring Awakening, West Side Story) and welcomes songwriters from different levels of experience and backgrounds.

Here’s what you need to know about submitting your song:

  1. It can be any style - from Broadway-style to pop and rock, from Latin to country and rap - as long as it is part of a musical theater story.  
  2. The song must be an original song.  It could be an original song specifically written for this Challenge or an original song written prior to the challenge.
  3. Songs cannot have been professionally recorded or distributed.
  4. A professional recording is not required. All you need to apply is a smart phone or computer to create a digital audio file of your song and a computer or tablet with internet access to submit an application.
  5. Music and lyrics can be written by the same person, or two different people to create a songwriting team. Songwriting teams must submit a single application.  

The Songwriting Challenge is a pilot program. In its first year, the competition will take place in just three locations. You must be from one of these locations in order to submit an application:

  • Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (in association with the Perpich Center)
  • Dallas County, TX (in association with Big Thought)
  • Seattle and King County, WA (in association with the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture)
If you are a high school student from one of the above locations with interest in writing music, and you have access to a smart phone or computer with an audio recording device, as well as access to the internet, you will be able to apply to this challenge.  


Award Information
Local awards: 
Each location will choose up to two runners-up and one local winner.  Runners-up and local winners will receive an official letter of commendation from the National Endowment for the Arts.
National awards:
The local winner(s) will become a national finalist(s) and travel with a chaperone to New York City during July 2016. In New York City, the national finalists will participate in a songwriting workshop as well as a final competition. The first place National Finalist (or National Finalist Team)  will receive a $5,000 scholarship and the National Finalist’s song will be published. The two National Runners-Up (or National Runners-Up Teams) will each receive a $2,500 scholarship. Travel and hotel costs will be covered by the national partners: National Endowment for the Arts and Playbill, Inc.

Activities will take place between February and July 2016:

  • February 17:  Application Open
  • April 4:  Application Deadline
  • May 16 -18: Local Winners Announcement
  • July 22-25: Finalists will travel to New York City for workshop and final competition

Student Eligibility
Music and lyrics can be written by the same student or by two different students, thereby allowing up to two students per application. If your song is written by two different students, please submit one application together.

All students are required to:

  • Submit only one application.
  • Be citizens or permanent residents of the United States.
    • Live and attend high school in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, Dallas County, TX, Seattle or King County, WA.
  • Be 2015-2016 matriculated high school students in grades 9–12. High school equivalent homeschooled students are eligible to apply.
  • If under 18, have permission from their parent or guardian by providing their parent or legal guardian’s signature, email, phone number, and address.
  • Relatives of those working for the NEA, local partners and national partners (Playbill, Inc.) or affiliated contractors and sponsors (Disney Theatrical Group) may not compete past the local/state level.

Deadline: Monday, April 4, 2016 at 11:59PM PST

Technical Assistance
If you have questions about the content of your application or are having technical problems, please email us at songwriting-support@getopenwater.com

Application Review
Applications will be reviewed on the basis of the following criteria. Each criteria is worth a maximum of three points for a total of 12 points maximum for the highest score.

  • Musical Theater: How well does the song drive the plot, bring settings or characters to life? 
  • Composition: How well do the music and/or melody work together with the lyrics to demonstrate a sophisticated and clear structure?
  • Lyrics: How well do the lyrics service the song, plot, and/or character development?
  • Overall Inspiration and Artistic Merit: How well does the song achieve overall artistic quality?  

Applications will be reviewed by a diverse panel of experts.

The NEA reserves the right to take appropriate actions in instances where submissions go beyond the boundaries of artistic merit and contain immediate threats of violence or criminal activity to individuals/communities.