Feist - How Come You Never Go There

The Tricky Nature of Pop Song Analysis

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 10-eBook Bundle”“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!

Gotye: Somebody That I Used To KnowJust 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.

Feist - Metals - "How Come You Never Go There"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.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Chord ProgressionsLooking 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.

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  1. can I make a suggestion gary? several times I’ve wanted to respond to a post that I’ve received from you via email on the mailing list, and it’s not possible / quickly / easily as you do it via mailing service which means that if I hit reply, then it won’t go to you.

    I dare say many of your other readers have felt the same, so, by putting this small barrier in the way of communication, you’re getting less engagement / development with your audience than you would be if you just sent a personal email out – this is what the likes of world class performers like Seth Godin / Ryan Holiday do.. they do a super simple, nonformatted, basic email with great information on their mailing lists – it appears more sincere and less sales-like. For instance, we really don’t need to see your picture on the email, we already know what you look like as we’ve signed up via the site!

    Don’t get me wrong, I read every mail / post I get from you and your information is always interesting / thought provoking, sometimes revelatory, but I feel if you made it easier for your ‘community’ of listeners to shoot you quick thoughts / feedback, it would also help / accelerate your own knowledge / development etc.



    PS – why do you have no contact form? at least not one that I can find!

    • Hi Sam:

      Thanks very much for your comment, I very much appreciate it. To be honest, I haven’t done much to explore the options regarding the email notification of posts, but your comment has spurred me on. For every summer, I usually have a short “to-do” list of things to get done, and I will definitely look into this. Making it impossible to reply was never my intention… it must be some sort of default setting that I’ve never changed.

      I love engagement, and so thanks very much for bringing this to my attention.


  2. Good post Gary!

    I have to admit, I enjoyed the snarky line of your commenter “Kinda silly to analyze pop music like this, it’s like writing an essay on personal relationship in the Transformers movie.”

    In my opinion, the Gotye track is an outlier in recent ‘Pop’ music. I believe it does have some interesting elements going for it musically and the lyrics were done well. It’s a thoughtfully engaging track with a monster hook.

    I’ve been listening to a lot of Mozart/Beethoven/Bach lately, but sat down this week to study the Hot 100 Billboard charts and catch up on pop trends with Spotify (I force myself to do this every once in a while). I’m not sure why, but this time I was more deeply (and negatively) affected by the formulaic nature of it all. That Gotye track would’ve been a jewel in the slog I went through.

    Two other observations from my listening exercise:

    1. In Spotify, they include a warning (“explicit”) next to the track title. Seemed like 50% of the Hot 100 had this. Disappointing. Even more so if they’re doing it strictly for the $$$.

    2. I think every songwriter/producer now follows the rule of starting the vocals after 1-2 bars. I get it. Everyones got a short attention span – cut to the chase. But, every now and then, I’d like to hear a little more thematic establishment with the intro.


    • Thanks Craig, I love your thoughts on this. (I also liked the “Transformers” comment as well, I confess. 🙂

      When I started doing this blog almost 10 years ago, a lot of the pop music I was analyzing and listening to came from studying the Billboard charts. But these days, I have to say that I just can’t stomach most of it. So for me, “pop music” tends to be the outliers of today’s music that you mention. And here’s hoping that pop music moves in a direction where thoughtful, interesting music — tunes where you hear something new each time — becomes a bit more of a norm.

      Thanks again, Craig.

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