"Three coins in a fountain . . ." Sammy Cahn started to sing, and then interrupted himself.

"Did he write that?" Cahn, who did indeed write the lyrics, asked in mock disbelief.

It's a question people like Cahn -- people who write the songs rather than sing them -- hear all the time.

Sammy Cahn is the sort of man who can say, "I had to write a song about Chicago for Frank Sinatra," and then remind you that the song begins "My kind of town" in a voice so matter-of-fact he might as well be talking about writing out the rent check. No big deal. Just another song for Sinatra.

Last night, Cahn and several other lyricists and composers sang (or close to it) some of their songs for an audience of 300 at the National Press Club's salute to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Sammy Fain had the music for "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," Hal David the words for "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller the words and the music to "Hound Dog," and Jule Styne the music for the shows "Gypsy" and "Funny Girl." Swaying and singing along, couples in the audience rubbed shoulders and friends smiled to each other at each new, familiar tune.

"One thing I know with my songs is, generally speaking, the bigger the hit, the more difficult it is for the song to emerge," said David, current president of ASCAP and lyricist of such songs as "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and "What the World Needs Now."

" 'All the Girls I've Loved Before' for example, was recorded by three artists before Julio Iglesias."

And what made it a hit now, what made Iglesias' "Girls" a part of the American humming repertoire?

"I wish I really knew," said David. "I'd bottle it and wouldn't tell anybody."

But these men, for whom hits were as common as new love songs, look beyond the passing successes of today.

"Music is the greatest thing America has contributed to the world," Styne said. "I've been involved in the musical theater, and the greats -- Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Jule Styne. We will outlive all this foolishness now. Our music has lasted 60 years. A song that's popular this week won't be remembered, but ours will.

"Violence plays a very important role in the rock form. It's loud noise, and you can't put words to noise. Instead they say, 'Oh, baby, do it!' and repeat it three or four times. That's the lyrics.

"Music was something people remembered, something they got married to, fell in love to, had grandchildren to. The songs kind of identified the good years -- 'Remember that song? Remember that year?' With 'Oh, baby, do it!' you don't say, 'Oh, do you remember that song and that year?' "

Cahn, who has collaborated with Styne, also had a rather low opinion of some contemporary music: "I say no one walks down the street humming noise."

But Cahn, who wrote the lyrics for "The Tender Trap," "High Hopes" and "Call Me Irresponsible," said he admired Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, "the people who are writing songs that have content. I always say songs need the two Ms -- music and meaning. Noise despoils but melody lingers. I am sure anyone would understand that."