Once you know why hit songs are successful, you can apply those successes to your own music.
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Is 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The verse melody consists of 4 short phrases.
- The 3rd phrase shows more rhythmic activity (syncopations, shorter note values, etc.) than the other phrases.
- The verse melody is in F major, while the bridge melody feels like it moves to Bb major.
- The bridge melody sits a little higher in pitch than the verse melody.
- There are more vocal harmonies toward the end of the song than at the beginning.
- 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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