How to Analyze Hit Songs, and Boost Your Own Songwriting Skills In the Process

Once you know why hit songs are successful, you can apply those successes to your own music.

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Guitar and Music with Chord ProgressionsIs it possible to analyze music without having strong music theory skills? I strongly advocate the learning of music theory as being hugely beneficial when analyzing songs. That being said, however, there are things you can learn about the songs you’re listening to simply by using basic powers of observation. This kind of simple analysis will help you improve your songwriting skills. If you’re not learning from past hits, you’re missing out on the best way to better yourself.

What do we mean by song analysis? Analyzing a song is a 2-step process. In the first step, you’re simply noting what’s going on. This is easily done by creating a map that accounts for most of the musical elements you’re hearing. In other words, you’ll want to know the chords and lyrics inside out, as well as knowing the basics of the melody – where it goes up, where it goes down, and so on.

In the second step, you’re actually analyzing the impact of those elements. You’re figuring out why the song works.

As I say, the good news is that even though music theory will help your analysis skills immensely, there is still much you can do to analyze music by using whatever rudimentary knowledge you already possess.

So let’s practice some song analysis. Choose a song that you really love; the kind of song you wish you had written. There are always reasons why great songs are great, so once you’ve got that song firmly in your musical brain, try the following activities:

  1. With your guitar or keyboard nearby, figure out the highest and lowest note of each melody. For example, you might write Verse: Highest: C; Lowest: E. Chorus: Highest: E; Lowest: G. If there are other melodies (pre-chorus, bridge, etc.), do the same.
  2. Do a line drawing of the melody. Here’s an article to describe what I mean. A line drawing shows the ups and downs and general shape of the melody.
  3. Come up with a chord progression. Some online chord resources can help, but keep in mind that the vast majority of chord progression sites get the chord progressions wrong. But such sites can at least serve as a guide.
  4. Write out the complete lyric. Again, online resources can help, and are easy to find.

Those 4 steps cover the “what’s going on” stage of songwriting analysis. By the time you’ve completed those 4 tasks, you should completely understand the structure of your favourite song.

And now for the analysis. Proper analysis doesn’t just tell you what’s going on; it tells you why the song is working so well. And this part is harder to define. Analysis usually means discovering how the different elements interact with each other. For example, if I were analyzing The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, I would probably make note of the following:

  1. The song is in AABABAC form. In other words, there are mainly 2 melodies (a verse and a bridge) that comprise the entire song, with a “coda” (“tail”) at the end.
  2. The verse melody is shaped like an arch. It starts in the low-middle range, then works its way upward to a high point before ending at a low point.
  3. The verse melody consists of 4 short phrases.
  4. The 3rd phrase shows more rhythmic activity (syncopations, shorter note values, etc.) than the other phrases.
  5. The verse melody is in F major, while the bridge melody feels like it moves to Bb major.
  6. The bridge melody sits a little higher in pitch than the verse melody.
  7. There are more vocal harmonies toward the end of the song than at the beginning.
  8. All the verse and bridge chords are diatonic, meaning that they all belong to the key of F major. The “Coda” introduces an altered chord: Eb. That Eb gives a nice “edge” to the end repeats.

In a way, there’s a 3rd stage beyond this “analysis”, which is to draw specific conclusions as to why the song works so well.

For example, in a 4-phrase melody like this one, it’s good to have the 3rd phrase stand out a bit, and perhaps show more rhythmic activity and perhaps harmonic complexity. You might try to draw some conclusions about that: that the increased rhythmic complexity goes hand-in-hand with what’s happening with the lyric, for example.

Other conclusions: It works well to add vocal harmonies and instruments later than earlier, as it builds energy. Also, the coda melody works its way upward while the chord progression moves downward.

The conclusions you draw can be up for debate. Others might argue with you about why a song works or doesn’t, and that’s all part of good analysis, too.

Once you’ve got a good handle on how to analyze songs, it’s a good idea to try analyzing your own. You can discover ways to improve your own music. So in the end, that’s the real benefit of song analysis: your own improvement as a songwriter.

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

  1. Cool post, but I want to play devil’s advocate!

    – music theory
    How necessary is this really? Most hits are a variation on I IV V and involve precious little more in terms of theory. Why they work has much more to do with the soung — a combination of the song and the sound it creates — than with any theory. Take Honky Tonk Women, a blues, but, um, not!

    – lyrics
    You make virtually no mention of the this but I think lyrics really matter, not every individual word or even phrase, but what the lyrics sound like and which certain words stand out matters.

    – instrumentation
    But not just the instruments, how they come in an out. Crucial, I think.

    Last but not least, rules are made for breaking. Learn them, sure, then break them — repeatedly!

    • Hi Jeff – Thanks very much for your comments on this post. Just to answer your “devil’s advocate” point on theory… a knowledge of theory can help musicians move beyond simple I-IV-V songs. And of course, rudimentary theory includes much, much more than simply chords. Time signatures, key identification, modal scales, triad inversions, transposition… a keen understanding of these topics can play an enormous role in the improvement of songwriting skills.

      About rules being made to be broken… I believe that even though it’s crucial that we listen to past hits to improve our writing, I wouldn’t equate that with “following rules”. In a sense, rules were meant to be ignored. It’s important to listen to lots of songs from different genres, and come up with “observations” (what outsiders might call “rules”) about what works. And then if as a songwriter you’re interested in building an audience base relatively quickly, to incorporate those observations into your writing style. But my favourite music tends to be written by people who think less about what the rules are, who have a keen understanding of musical history in their chosen genre, but who then strike out in their own direction, hit-song audiences be damned!

      Thanks Jeff, as always, for your good observations.

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