I’m a believer in song analysis as a way of improving songwriting technique. For any writer of music, basic curiosity should make us want to know why something sounds so good, so that we might be able to incorporate at least some of those ideas into our own music. (Or why something sounds so bad, so we can avoid the same mistakes. ;))
But here’s the problem with analyzing music in the pop genres: there’s no guarantee that the songwriter was consciously aware of the theory behind their own moments of genius.
“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!
Just as one example, back in 2012, I had written a song analysis of Gotye’s hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” In that post, I mentioned the fact that there is an ambiguity regarding the key: even progressions that point to F major never seem to give us an F chord as a confirmation of the key. So there is a sense of the chord progression never giving us a strong sense of direction: “The chord progression helps create the impression that he can’t move on,” I wrote at the time.
One reader said in response to the analysis, “Kinda silly to analyze pop music like this, it’s like writing an essay on personal relationship in the Transformers movie.” I think there is an element of truth (although I believe it’s a small element!), in the sense that the vagueness of the key may have been a kind of musical “accident”, and not part of the plan at all.
And that’s true of practically every clever moment or clever structural element you can study in pop music. When it comes right down to it, it’s not easy to know if the songwriter was being clever or being lucky. I’ve mentioned in a blog post that Feist’s “How Come You Never Go There” uses a melodic structure that enhances the hypnotic appeal of the lyrics. But is that Feist being clever, or a happy accident?
Let’s say that we can’t come up with a good answer to that question. Let’s say that most good moments in music are accidental, where the songwriters, through their instincts, just came up with something that actually worked well, where each element within the song “randomly” partnered really well with each other. Does that make song analysis a useless pursuit? Are we adding meaning where none exists?
In support of songwriting analysis, I’d still say that even if moments of genius within a song are simply serendipitous, it’s worth the time you spend learning why those moments work so well.
For example, if you discover, while studying “Somebody That I Used to Know”, that the F major/D minor vagueness of the key seems to partner well with the nature of the lyric, and if that’s something you can use in your next song, then it doesn’t matter a lot if Gotye knew what he was doing, or if it was a creative accident.
I admit that it can sound a tad pretentious to be considering the musical meaning of something within a song when the songwriter may have been unaware of it at all. But the truth remains: good songs are good because all the basic elements within that song are partnering so well.
Whether that good partnership comes from a conscious process, or whether it comes by some kind of creative accident shouldn’t matter when it comes to the more crucial question for songwriters: Have they done something I can do in my own songs?
I believe that the best songwriters out there will improve by listening a lot to other music. You will improve every time you try to reveal the magic of why the good songs are good. And that’s because you can now consciously apply those techniques to your own songs.
Looking for lists of progressions you can use in your own songs? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle has 2 main collections, plus eBooks on how to harmonize your own melodies, and more.