What Can Today’s Songwriters Learn From Yesterday’s Songs?

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Billy Joel - Just the Way You AreHistory, at least as it pertains to the arts, has a way of filtering out garbage. For example, it’s easy to think that during the Classical era it was mainly Mozart and Haydn who were doing the bulk of the writing, with a few other notables. In fact, there were hundreds, possibly thousands of composers all composing music at that time. Most of those thousands would never be remembered once their lives ended. Not to be insensitive, but their music just wasn’t remarkable enough. In this sense, history does us a favour, because it clears out a lot of noise and allows us to focus our attention on the music that really works well. And more to the point for composers, it makes it easy to know what to study in order to improve.

The same thing has happened (though possibly to a lesser extent) in popular song genres. One-hit wonders are fun to make note of, but in 100 years you’ll have to do some careful research to find most of them again.

The favour that history does for us is to remove a lot of songs that, while popular in their day, may not be the best models for us to study. The success of a group or singer can have more to do with their social influence and status than their musical abilities. Looking at today’s Billboard charts doesn’t make it apparent who the great singer/songwriters are, and who are the ones who are going to fade fast.

So history has been kind to Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and other such writers, and less kind to their contemporaries that were also aspiring songwriters but never made it, probably numbering in at least the thousands.

Creating a hit song can take a bit of luck and serendipity, but it’s usually the quality of the writing and the quality of the performance that gives it staying power.

If you’re a songwriter, and you’re only listening to today’s hit songs, you’re missing out on a huge learning opportunity. Songwriters should be very interested in music that, though written decades ago, still thrills audiences, and perhaps more relevantly, still attracts new listeners.

So what can you learn? An enormous amount, actually. Surprisingly little has changed in what makes a song work. Performance style, of course, is very different today than music in the past. But song structure (form), the way chords progress, the way melodies work, and the kinds of things we sing about… these are all areas that really haven’t changed a whole lot.

So for every songwriter out there who is looking to improve, it’s a crucial part of learning to analyze hits from years ago, and figure out why they still work today, why they still get recorded, and why they’ll probably be studied decades, perhaps even centuries from now.

And though your music isn’t going to sound the same as these great examples of songwriting (that’s not the point of studying them), your own musical style will benefit. Here’s a short list of songs that I personally think are worth some keen study. A quick YouTube search will help you find a recording if needed. Please feel free to suggest your own favourites that have stood the test of time.

For Melodic Design and Shape:

  • “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (music: Richard Rodgers/lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
  • “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (music: Harold Arlen/lyrics: E.Y. Harburg)
  • “Yesterday” (Paul McCartney (Lennon & McCartney))
  • “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)

For Strong Harmonic Design:

  • “What the World Needs Now is Love” (Burt Bacharach)
  • “Just the Way You Are” (Billy Joel)
  • “Hotel California” (Don Felder, Don Henley, Glenn Frey)
For Strong Lyrics:
  • “Imagine” (John Lennon)
  • “Sound of Silence” (Paul Simon)
  • “American Pie” (Don McLean)

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