Studying Old (Good) Tunes is a Must for Today’s Songwriters

If you aren’t studying the oldies, you’re missing a glorious opportunity to improve your craft.

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Buddy HollyFor centuries, composers of music have learned their craft by studying good music that’s come from previous generations. Mozart learned by studying the music of J.S. Bach. Beethoven was taught by, and highly influenced by, composer Joseph Haydn. And Beethoven himself influenced practically every classical composer that followed him.

In pop music, the same idea is true. Early rock & rollers were influenced by jazz and country musicians such as Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, the Carter family, and many more.

Seeing What Worked

Looking back a generation or two gives you an important perspective: you can see what worked. And if you look at the structure of music from even several generations earlier, you should find yourself struck by the realization that not much has changed in how good music works. The only thing that really changes to any significant degree is performing style, and related aspects such as instrumentation. Song form, melodic shape, and (to a certain degree) chord choices, haven’t changed much in the past 6 decades.

Students of songwriting often fear that if they study “the oldies”, their own music will acquire a dated, antiquated sound. That’s only true if you listen to old music without listening to anything else. But as any good songwriter knows, you need to be listening to lots of music, from yesterday and today.


Practically any innovation in music comes from modifying an old idea. New ideas rarely jump out of nowhere. They come from something you’ve heard in a different setting, stimulating your imagination to try it in your own, new way.

It follows that the only way to modify an old idea is to be familiar with it. Innovation, to be successful, needs to happen in small “tastes,” and is best seen as a modification of an old idea.

Tips for Studying the Oldies

How do you make best use of your time when it comes to studying hits from bygone eras? Here are some tips:

  1. Check Good Lists. You may not be that familiar with songs from a few generations ago, so here are 3 suggested lists to get you started. (NOTE: It’s common for musicians to allow their opinions regarding the musicians included in these lists to pull them off-topic (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in particular, seems to be particularly contentious), but try to put your opinions aside and use the lists as a good source of information.)
    1. Rolling Stone – 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
    2. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
    3. The 56 greatest songwriters of all time
  2. Analyze old songs, don’t just listen. Listen several times, targeting a different element of the music with each listen. Learn to play the melody, then make a line drawing of it. Note the shape. Then learn the chords, then print out the lyric and look at it. Experiment by trying chord substitutions. In short, get as familiar with the song as possible.
  3. Always listen with an open mind. As a student of songwriting, you need to distinguish music that’s bad from music that you just don’t happen to like. You may not be a huge fan of Buddy Holly, for example, but there’s a wealth of knowledge to be gained by looking at his songs.
  4. Experiment with old songs. Try taking an oldie that you like, and see what you can do to dress it up in a new way. You should find that old melodies are quite easy to work into a 2015-type of instrumentation/presentation.
  5. Read interviews by music industry personnel. They have the years of experience and the practical knowledge that comes from their connections to others in the industry. Their thoughts on music from past generations can be a songwriter’s gold mine. You can find many of these interviews by doing web searches.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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