Discovering why you like a song is a great first step to improving your own songwriting technique.
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What makes a good song? It’s partly a matter of personal taste, and also a matter of good song structure. But focusing on taste for the moment, we like songs if they are presented in a style that we enjoy. We group those styles into categories called genres. And then within each genre, you’ve got sub-genres to consider.
And within sub-genres, you have to consider that each and every songwriter will have their own way of writing, their own way of presenting their music. This is why we love music, and why we’re so intrigued by it: every songwriter brings their own style to music, and then we gravitate to the ones we love, and more-or-less ignore the ones we don’t.
If you’re like most people, there are genres you like, and genres you dislike. You probably don’t know all the best songwriters in the world, because you naturally tend to ignore music you don’t like. I’ve written many times about the benefits of acquainting yourself with music from genres you don’t normally listen to, and I hope you do that.
But there is a way of taking the songs you love, and learning from them, allowing them to inform and guide your own songwriting. It involves analyzing good songs, figuring out what’s so good about them, and then applying those lessons learned to your own music.
Here’s a way of working that can help you achieve that. First, choose a song (not your own) that you love to listen to. The more recent the song, the better. Now try the following:
Dig into the Melody
Even if you don’t read music, there is a way to analyze the melody. First, play the melody over and over on your instrument of choice (guitar, keyboard, or other). Once you can play it with ease, write down the letter names of each note of the melody. For example, if your chosen song is “Hi-Five” from Angel Olsen, you’ll write:
C#-C#-C#-D-C#-B-A-B-E-D | E-E-A-F#-E-E–D |C#-C#-D-C#-B-C#-B-A-D-E-B|C#-C#-D-C#-C#-C#-B-D-E-B….
Now convert those notes to lines: draw a horizontal line that moves up and down, representing the direction and shape of the melody:
Doing this for one song may not show you much, but doing this for several songs may reveal something about the kinds of melodies you like. For example, you might discover that you feel drawn to songs that translate into a flat line, with lots of repeated tones, or perhaps one with a very noticeable high point. That may not be something you will have noticed before, but it allows you to think about ways to incorporate those characteristics into your own music.
Dig Into the Chords
The biggest surprise many encounter when creating chord charts of their favourite songs is the simplicity and general mundaneness of those chords when played by themselves. If you’re not clear on how to discover the chords for a song, read this post. Then do this:
- Compare verse, chorus, bridge progressions. You’ll either find that they are the same (or very similar), or that the chorus progression tends to be shorter and less adventurous than the verse and the bridge.
- Compare the first chord of each song section. You’ll find that for songs where the chorus is in a major key, that the verse and bridge start on minor chords.
- For each section, compare the first two or three chords with the final two or three. This will give you a sense of how that songwriter likes to structure chords. For example, you may find that you are drawn to verse progressions that are “closed systems”, ending on a tonic chord, before moving on to the chorus.
Dig Into the Lyrics
This can be done on many levels. To start:
- Write a concise, 1- or 2-paragraph short story that gives the basic outline for the events that occur in the song.
- For each section of the song lyric, write a letter ‘N’ (narrative) if you feel that the lyric is mainly narrative, or ‘E’ (emotive) if you feel that the lyric is mainly an emotional expression or reaction to events in the song. Write N/E (narrative/emotive) if you feel that it moves back and forth between the two.
These are just some preliminary ideas. The purpose here is to analyze – to try to get inside the head of your favourite songwriter, and to try to discover any patterns or methods of working that describe why you happen to like their music so much.
The results of musical analysis can be very surprising, and very informative. It can be a huge help to your own songwriting as you begin to identify the attractive qualities of music that you like.
The next logical step is to try analyzing your own songs in a similar way. Knowledge is a very powerful thing. The end result is that you’ll learn to apply the qualities of good music to your own songwriting process.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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