Blind Willie Johnson - Sinead O'Connor

How Can Studying Old Songs Help Us to Write New Ones?

Does it seem strange to think that you might learn a thing or two about songwriting by studying hits from the past? You might love Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly, Norman Petty), but what if you’re hoping to write the next big pop song hit? What does “That’ll Be the Day” have to do with a new song that you might be trying to write today?

Old songs — at least the ones that were successful in the past — have much to teach us:

  1. Song structure. The way songs are designed today hasn’t varied much over the past 6 decades. “That’ll Be the Day” is a standard verse-chorus design — a form that had been around since the days of Schubert songs more than 100 years earlier. For today’s songwriter: It answers the question: What does it sound like to start a song with a chorus?
  2. Song lyrics. Songs from 6 decades ago established the low-to-high emotional content of lyrics as they moved from verse to chorus. For today’s songwriter: Lyrics still need to do the job of moving the emotional impact of the music up and down. As such, that’s an important job of lyrics that still holds true today.
  3. Chord progressions. The way chords work today is precisely identical to the way they worked in Buddy Holly’s day. There are slight differences in chord choices today, but how those chords work is still the same. For today’s songwriter: It can be interesting to look at certain moments within a song’s structure (how the verse connects to the chorus, for example), and see how chord choice affects the way we hear those various sections connecting. In “That’ll Be the Day”, the verse progression ends on a V-chord — a so-called “open cadence”, which needs some sort of resolution. The chorus starts on a IV-chord, which delays the arrival of the I-chord. That’s a technique that can still work well today.

We can go on an on with this and talk about how other elements within songs still can apply today. The truth is that what makes a song sound old is the production — the overall sound. Like Sinead O’Connor’s remake of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Trouble Will Soon Be Over”, you update the sound and you’ve got a song that can sound like a new composition.

Hooks and Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store. Get it separately, or as part of 10-eBook Bundle, along with a FREE chord progression eBook.

It’s Not Just About Remakes

But remakes of songs isn’t exactly what I’m talking about in this post. I want to make the point that old songs can serve as models in other ways for brand new songs that we’re writing. In fact, I might even make a stronger point than that, and say that old songs are really the only reliable source of musical instruction a songwriter has today.

When being interviewed, today’s best songwriters will constantly talk about how they were influenced by songs and writers that came before. They might have heard a chord change they liked from a song 40 written years ago, or perhaps it was a kind of guitar sound, or maybe it was a key change. Whatever it is, good songwriters today seem to be frequently talking about songs that happened years ago.

The Best Songwriters are Active Listeners

The best way to be sure that you’re learning and applying the lessons learned by earlier songwriters is to engage in active listening. To actively listen means to attempt to be deliberately aware of what’s going on in a song.

It means going beyond what a casual listener would do. For anyone else (non-songwriters, in other words), it’s enough simply to know which songs you like and which ones you don’t. To learn from songwriting requires more. You need to be aware of what you like, but then you need to go a step further and identify what it is that you like or dislike.

That’s the sort of thing you can keep in a songwriting journal — a kind of mini-analysis of songs that have influenced you from past generations. To that end, do an online search for hits songs from past decades, and see what similarities there are, and what you like or dislike about them.

If you want to be the best you can possibly be, make listening — from all genres, and all eras — a daily part of becoming a better songwriter.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs!


Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Hi Gary …..I am confused on “That’ll Be The Day ” as on the record the song starts on D .The way I see it is that the verse ends on the II 7 chord .The chorus also starts out on D .Could you please clear this up for my friend Gary Taylor and I .Thanks and love your stuff !!

  2. Pingback: How Can Studying Old Songs Help Us to Write New Ones? - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.