Everything Old is New Again!

Gary Ewer•Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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musician/composerI think J. S. Bach would have made a great pop songwriter if he had lived a bit later. You’d think that Classical music doesn’t have much in common with the kind of stuff we’re dancing to today, but you’d be wrong. In fact, many of the problems today’s songwriters are dealing with are the same sorts of problems composers 300 years ago were trying to solve. Here’s a short list.


Anyone who studies “tonal counterpoint” in a music school these days is basically studying the music of J. S. Bach. To put it simply, he was the king of melodic construction.

A quick study of his music shows that his melodies head generally in an upward direction, and then cadence (i.e., come to a rest) a little lower than its high point. Kind of like an inverted ‘U’. Think of the phrases that make up Bach’s famous “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” that we hear at almost every wedding (and funerals, come to think of it), and you’ll get the picture.

Sound familiar? This is still the standard way of writing today, even in the pop song world. Think of “Hey Jude”, and you’ll find that same rise/fall shape. With Bach, phrases that follow those initial phrases will generally be higher, just like the “choruses are higher than verses” adage I’ve been banging on about for several hundred posts.


If your lyrics consist of 500 words, with no two words repeated anywhere, it’s time for you to get back to Bach. Bach, and all other Baroque/Classical composers, tended to select a meaningful chunk of text, and repeat words and phrases as part of the musical structure. Repetition, as long as it isn’t ad nauseum, help reinforce points and makes for a more memorable musical experience. The only thing that Classical musicians did was usually select Biblical texts, or poetry from world-class poets, and as we know, writing in the vernacular is usually the selected way to go for most popular song genres. Choruses strengthen structure because they tend to repeat, and repetition is a crucial element in the memorability of songs.


Harmonic progressions need a harmonic goal. This was the point of my previous post, and it’s a vital one. Chords that meander about like a lost child will leave listeners feeling lost as well. Bach and his contemporaries used chord progression formulas (yes indeed, he did!) And you may be surprised to know that when you examine the balance between simplicity and complexity, Bach almost always opted for simple. And yet his music can sound complex because within that simple framework, he made quick visits to other keys. These visits give the illusion of complexity, but in fact, they’re quite simple. How he actually did this is the topic of another post in the near future.

So in almost all the ways that really matter, the structure music of today bears striking similarity to the music from 300 years ago. What accounts for the obvious difference between the two eras is style. So all you have to do is take a piece from Bach, change the style, and you can come up with something that sounds like it was written much more recently. Songwriters Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell did this in 1965 to Bach’s “Minuet in G”, and the result was the hit song “A Lover’s Concerto.”

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