Sufjan Stevens: "Death With Dignity" – Why It Works

“Death With Dignity” has several features that allow it to serve as a model for how great songs are written.

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Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & LowellSufjan Stevens has just released a new album, “Carrie & Lowell,” and I’ve been enjoying giving the entire album a thorough listen, and in particular the first track, “Death With Dignity.”

Stevens is a master of mood, delicately placing veils of emotions and sentiments using exquisitely transparent musical layers. Without a doubt, Stevens will be seen in years to come (if he isn’t already) as one of this century’s musical geniuses. His music will be analyzed and parsed for decades to come.

Stevens’ music has a way of making you not care why it sounds so good. It just does, and you want to put your analytical mind away for a while and just listen and experience the sounds and words.

But if you’re a composer of music, something in your creative mind suddenly kicks in, and you ask yourself typical songwriter questions: How is he able to captivate me with such sparsly quiet musical effects? What is it that keeps me wanting to listen? And what can I do to my music that makes my audience feel the same way?

All music can be analyzed, and with time, you can find answers. With a song like “Death With Dignity”, for example, you’ll find that solid songwriting technique hides beneath the surface, making you believe that your emotional attraction to the music is simply magical.

But it’s important to put your songwriter hat on from time to time, and see what we can learn. If you want to know what it is about “Death With Dignity” that works so well, try these thoughts for starters:

  1. The lyric is loaded with imagery, and can’t be easily parsed in a few (or even many) listens. Every time you listen, you hear something new. It may simply be that a different phrase grabs your interest each time, but nonetheless, there is something new to hear every time. A lyric that can’t be completely absorbed in one listen is a typical feature of great songs.
  2. The melodies are mainly diatonic (i.e., mainly avoiding notes from outside the song’s key), and feature beautifully distinct contours. Melodies with a recognizable shape that can be easily traced with a pencil (both figuratively and literally) are ones that listeners usually find attractive, singable, and easy to remember.
  3. The melodies move back and forth from easy syncopations to simple, on-the-beat rhythms. Syncopations tend to build melodic energy, and you find that with the opening line, “Spirit of my silence…” Relaxation comes when the melodies shift to a mainly on-the-beat presentation, “…hear you“.
  4. The chord progressions are by-and-large simple, constantly targeting the tonic chord. Harmonic complexity has a place, and I love music that occasionally takes me on bizarre journeys. But most of the time Stevens creates his music using simple progressions that serve as a rolling landscape rather than a mind-blowing feature. (Emaj7 – A – Emaj7 – F#m – E/G# – A – F#m – E/G#…)
  5. The ending is intriguing. In several posts I’ve done on this blog, I’ve mentioned that your music, to set itself apart from other music, needs something distinctive. It’s not enough to be good; you’ve got to offer something creatively, beautifully different, or else you become one more bit of noise added to the noise we call today’s music. Many of the songs on “Carrie & Lowell” end with what sounds like a contemplative soundscape, and it’s distinctive without being pretentious.
  6.  The song uses repetition on many levels and in many different ways. Repetition is an important part of what makes music pleasing. Stevens uses the kind of repetition you expect from any song: repetitious rhythmic elements in the backing instruments, repeated verses, repeated lines of lyrics, and so on. But his most clever use is the way he uses repetition in the melodic lines, both exact (“I don’t know where to begin“) and approximate (“I can hear you” – “..afraid to be near you“). Repetition is a vital part of musical form, and works to hold music together.
  7. The instrumentation is pleasantly transparent. A thin instrumentation usually stands the test of time. The cleaner, more acoustic sounds of this album will work well into the future.

“Carrie & Lowell” is a stunningly attractive album that will hook you, relentless in its ability to keep you listening from beginning to end. Every song provides lessons that you can apply to your own music as you seek to improve your own songwriting technique.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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