Songwriting and the Value of “Snapshot Analysis”

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Guitar and MusicWhether it’s writing a 4-minute song or a 3-hour long opera, a composer’s task is to take the listener on a musical journey. And while composing a complete opera might seem to be a daunting undertaking, there are particular challenges that arise when that musical journey needs to feel complete in just 3 to 5 minutes. Here’s one idea that can help you plot that journey a little easier: take some “snapshots” of the finished product.

Here’s a simple version of this idea. Listen to a few seconds from the beginning of your song. Now move the play slider to the end, and listen to the last few seconds. What do you notice?

The last moments of many successful songs will 1) be louder; 2) use more instruments; 3) be rhythmically busier, and 4) feature a vocal line that’s placed higher.

So a quick comparison of those two snapshots can help you if your song feels lifeless, or lacking somehow.

Though it can be a bit more time-consuming, here’s an even better idea. Write short descriptions of each section (verse, chorus, etc.) of your song. For each section, say something about the general dynamic level (i.e., loudness), instrumentation, rhythmic background, and general range of the vocals.

You can practice this idea with any song. So why not pick out several hit songs that you’ve always loved, and do a quick snap-shot analysis of each one.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you do this exercise. First, even though most songs get busier, louder, or perhaps higher, these aren’t rules as much as they are commonalities. So if your song doesn’t get louder, that’s no indication that something’s necessarily wrong with your song.

Secondly, it’s best only  to use any analysis technique like this if you feel that your song is weak in some unidentifiable way. It’s a bad idea to simply take a song you’ve written and analyze it as an afterthought. Why? Because there are songs that for some unexplainable reason work really well, even though they may violate the basic “rules” of what makes a great song. And it would be a shame to assume your song needs to be changed when it was just fine the way it was.

And third, this kind of snapshot analysis is something you can do as you work on your song; don’t feel you have to wait until you’ve got what you think is a finished product. As you write, if you feel something isn’t working, do up a quick demo recording of what you’ve got, and do a bit of snapshot analysis, and you may suddenly identify something that can help you continue on the right track.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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