Making an impact on a particular audience has as much or more to do with how your songs are performed than how they're written. True, it would seem to be a correct strategy for today's songwriters to listen to today's music in order to know how it should sound. But if all you're doing is listening to the latest tunes, you're missing an opportunity to improve your songwriting skills. The hits from decades ago, even though they've faded from the radar a bit, are still fantastic examples of song structure that we can be learning from, even today. [Continued below..]
Looking for some examples of excellent tunes from the past that can help you today? Here's a short list. You'll be amazed how much some of the old songs, even from the 1920s, used chords and a basic song structure that's still being used today.
- "Swanee" - Al Jolson (1920) Written by George Gershwin, Irving Caesar. A major Billboard hit in 1920 - number 1 for 18 weeks. The song starts with an intro in F major, switches to F minor for the verse, then moves back to F major for the chorus. This idea of major to minor and back to major became a popular harmony technique in many genres and eras: "You've Got a Friend" (Carole King), for example.
- "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - Judy Garland (1939) Written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. That distinctive octave leap at the beginning shows the power that melodic leaps can have when partnered with a powerful lyric.
- "Paper Doll" - The Mills Brothers (1943) Written by Johnny S. Black. The irony here is that the Mills Brothers revived this song, which was actually written in 1915 by Johnny Black. The beauty of this song is in its melodic structure: a 2 part verse that shows a very clear climactic high point ("I'd rather have a paper doll to call my own..") with the melody moving downward to a final cadence. That's still a melodic technique that's used in the more modern era of pop music: "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (Simon & Garfunkel), and "Billie Jean" (Michael Jackson).
- "Que sera sera (Whatever will be will be)" - Doris Day (1956) Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. This song shows an aspect of melodic contouring that's still prevalent today: upward moving melodic motifs in the verse, followed by downward moving shapes in the chorus. You still see this today, with songs like Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me", and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep"
- "Stand By Me" - Ben E. King (1961) Written by King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller. This shows proper verse-chorus lyric progression in a very clear snapshot: a verse that describes (people, situations, circumstances), with a simple chorus that emotes ("Stand by me..")
If you consider yourself a true student of songwriting, you need to be listening to music from all genres, and acquainting yourself with successful music that was written even many, many years ago.
In a very real way, the basic structure of songwriting hasn't changed all that much, though the performance style has changed considerably. Any one of the songs in the list above could be redone (and are being redone) by artists today. That one fact alone tells us that the basics of song construction really haven't changed.
And what that means to you as a songwriter is that there is a treasure trove of literally thousands of hits from many decades that are waiting for you to rediscover. For every song from the past that you listen to, simply ask yourself: what can I learn from this that I can apply to the songs I'm writing today?
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