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The songwriters who get better quickly are the ones who know how to analyze music. Look at it this way: If you don’t have the ability to analyze songs, you have only your instincts to help you improve. With analytical skills, you are able to determine why successful songs work, and can transfer that knowledge to your own musical creations. But what does music analysis actually mean, and how do you do it?
Music analysis is a two-step process:
- THE SKETCHING STAGE: Come up with a map or plan of the song, including elements such as the song’s formal structure, chord progressions, melodic shapes, lyrics, etc.
- THE ANALYSIS STAGE: Determine why those elements of the song work or fail, and figure out what might be done to improve the weaker elements.
It goes without saying that this kind of analysis can (and should) be done on your own, and other musicians’, songs.
And you should also note that it is quite possible to find that a song you personally dislike might actually be a good song, with a strong structure. Music analysis can include your own likes or dislikes, but it’s really not an important part of analysis. You can use your own aversions to a song as a starting point for analysis, but be objective enough to accept that songs you don’t care for could still be good.
So how does one analyze a song? Here are some bits of advice:
- Give a song a few listens before beginning an analysis. I would recommend listening at least once for every minute of length. So for a standard song of 4-5 minutes, listen 4 or 5 times before analyzing. With each listening, you hear things you didn’t hear before.
- To begin the “Sketching Stage,” take a piece of paper and sketch out a map that describes every formal section in that song, with timings. Here’s an example of one I did for Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.“
- Try to come up with a line drawing that shows the shapes of the different melodies used in the song. Here’s one I did of some of the melodies in Imogen Heap’s “Tidal.“
- Produce chord charts of the various progressions used within the song.
- Write out or print up the lyrics, and give them several read-throughs, noting the rhythms of the words as used in the song.
- To begin the “Analysis Stage”, take another look at the formal map you created in Step 2 above. You should be seeing that a song intro is relatively short, that verses and choruses generally have the same or similar length, that the chorus happens before the 1-minute mark, etc.
- Analyze the melodies. While you should be seeing that there are some contrasting elements between verse and chorus (either with regard to melodic shape or with rhythmic activity), you should also notice some similarities (i.e., use of melodic motifs)
- Analyze the chord progressions. As with melodies, you’ll likely find that good songs show a strong connection between the chords used in the verse and those of the chorus. Bridge progressions should start on a chord different from the start of the chorus.
In addition to those 8 steps, you’ll also want to analyze the song for other aspects: Is the song in the right key, not just for the singer, but for the emotional impact of the song? Is the tempo right? Is the instrumentation interesting? Is the song too long? Is the bridge too long and meandering?
Analyze a few good hit songs to get your feet wet, and then try analyzing your own. It’s a real eye-opener, and really help you improve your writing skills.
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