Songwriting: Analyze Your Failures, and Others’ Successes

Analysis helps you become a better songwriter, but there are times when it’s best to simply move on.

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Writing Music Without InspirationThe analysis of good music can reveal important secrets to you as a songwriter, and I highly advise getting into the habit of regular song analysis. If you don’t have that basic level of curiosity as a composer, the curiosity that makes you say, “Why does that song work so well?”, you are missing out on a fantastic opportunity to learn and to improve your own music. But there are times when it makes sense, and there are times when it doesn’t. When you’ve written a song that really seems to work well, that’s not a time to analyze. That’s a time to move on and start your next tune.

Here’s a bit more of what I mean. It’s possible to draw conclusions about what makes a good song by studying great music from the past 5 or 6 decades. And those conclusions lead to what we know of as songwriting principles. But not every great song will follow those principles. Some songs, despite the fact that they appear to “break all the rules”, will succeed famously, and will succeed almost because of the quirkiness that comes from breaking the rules. “A Day In the Life” (The Beatles) is probably a great example here.

If you’ve written a song that seems to come from left field, and even appears to violate the norms of songwriting for your chosen genre, you can destroy that song by trying to “fix” it.

For example, we know that songs need to have a clearly understandable form. The form that predominates in the world of pop song is the verse-chorus format, with an optional bridge after the second chorus. There are many other songs that use a variation on that: verse-only, verse-refrain, and so on. But there are songs where that design is simply ignored, and something totally ad hoc is concocted: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen), as one example, which comes in at 166 on the Rolling Stones’ “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

For every principle of songwriting, it’s possible to list the songs that succeed despite ignoring that principle. So here’s a rule of thumb for song analysis: Analyze your failures, and others‘ successes. 

The value of analyzing other musicians’ successes is obvious. It’s our greatest way of discovering what works, and adding that knowledge to our “toolbox” of songwriting tricks.Guitarist-Singer-Songwriter

And I don’t want to make it seem that analyzing your own successes is a waste of time. It can of course be very revealing to know why something is working so well. But there is a possible danger in analyzing your own successes. You can start to wonder, especially if your song violates some basic principles, if your song is really as good as it seems. And there’s nothing worse than fixing something that’s working.

If your song works, that’s not a time to analyze. That’s a time to move on and start your next song.

But if your song does seem to be lacking in some way, try a little analysis: here’s a short list of the most common songwriting errors. Can you point to the one that’s causing you problems?

  • The form of the song is confusing. (Form usually contrasts verse and chorus material)
  • The melody lacks shape. (Verse melodies are usually lower in pitch than choruses.)
  • Chords seem to wander aimlessly. (Avoid progressions that are too long, and don’t resolve properly.)
  • Strong and fragile chord progressions are used haphazardly. (Strong progressions – progressions that clearly point to one chord as being the tonic – are good, and should be very common especially in choruses.)
  • The lyrics are not supporting the form of the song. (Strong, conclusive lyrics with emotive words belong in choruses; lyrics that tell a story belong in verses. Use common, everyday words. Avoid poetry if you aren’t a poet.)

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