Songwriter’s Intuition, and the Validity of Music Analysis

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Music - Piano CompositionStudents of songwriting enjoy analyzing music, attempting to figure out why songs work. Does it offer too much credit to a songwriter if you discover things that even the songwriter wasn’t consciously aware of when it was composed? If you study a song’s melody, and discover an interesting correlation between the verse and chorus melody, is that analysis invalid if the songwriter says, “Well, if there was a relationship between those melodies, I certainly wasn’t aware of it!”

When we talk about a songwriter’s intuition, we mean his/her ability to write successful music without necessarily being conscious of how or why the song works. Hopefully we all have at least a bit of this quality. I suspect that songwriting would be dreary and rather difficult if we had to consciously create every musical idea that appears in our music. So if you write a song that just seems to come out of nowhere, where it all just seems to work, doesn’t that mean that song analysis gives too much credit?

Here’s an example to more accurately describe the issue: What if you wrote a song in 15 minutes, a song that really works well, that’s a real gem. When a song happens that easily, songwriters often worry about plagiarism: surely I must have heard that song somewhere before, and I’ve now unintentionally stolen it!

Paul McCartney claims to have had those fears when he wrote “Yesterday”. The melody and chords fell together so easily that he wondered if he might have inadvertently pinched it.

And what if someone analyzes your song and discovers that the contour of your chorus melody is an inversion of the contour of the verse melody? But if you never thought about the relationship between the verse and chorus melodies, does that render the music analysis invalid?

No, I believe the analysis is still valid. The connection between verse and chorus melodies is a feature to be identified and studied, whether the composer was aware of that connection or not.

When you write a song, a large part of it comes spontaneously from the creative part of your brain. You don’t think about it – you simply do it. Rhythms will seem to naturally present themselves, and melodic fragments will sometimes appear seemingly out of thin air. That’s your songwriter’s intuition at work.

When you’re finished, you may have created a song that really works well. And even for you, it may not be immediately clear why the song works.

A musical analysis will usually show why songs succeed. The fact that the composer of the music might not have been consciously aware of those various successful elements during the process of writing does not mean that analysis is giving too much credit.

In university music degree programs, a lot of time and effort is spent on analyzing works of the world’s greatest composers. One question you almost never hear is, “I wonder if Mozart was aware of that interesting motivic development we see in the 2nd movement…” Music analysis does not typically involve determining if the composer was consciously alert to every minute detail.

To improve as a songwriter, and to hone your own musical instincts and intuition, you need to make music analysis an important part of your weekly songwriting activities. And as you discover interesting elements within a song, don’t worry about whether the songwriter consciously knew of those elements. That’s not important.

What is important is that you’ve just learned something important about why good songs are good, and this will help enhance your own musical intuition.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. It’s been a long while since you posted Songwriters Intuition in 2011, but I found your article after searching for songs known or suspected as coming from Intuition. I’ve only written a little over 50 songs which are guitar-based instrumentals. All but two of the songs were composed consciously by starting with a single drum loop that inspired me to write the first rhythm. If the rhythm inspired a usable melody, then I would continue. It would generally take 30 days to CONSCIOUSLY write & record about 48 of my songs. That leaves two songs where Intuition played a significant role. One of them was a jazz tune that I completed in two days. It was totally out of character to write & record that quick, but it was written the day after I completed the last test in a six month long intense self-study to pass 14 Microsoft certification tests. I hope to do some analysis on that song as it evokes various emotions beyond major/minor and I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing, but I think you raise some interesting points around credit, etc. I think it was inspired or came from jazz studies I had done years before. I feel it’s the best song I’ve ever wrote, but as for giving myself credit…. I will say it felt more like a reward for passing all those tests.

    But the other one is something completely different and it’s what led me to your site. I think I will email you on that. Not that it’s something I don’t want to share. On the contrary… There are alot of details. Thank you for the fascinating article!

  2. Pingback: Songwriting Link of the Day May 19, 2011 | Creative Music

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