If you’re not a writer or performer of music, then it’s logical to say that music is something that you only ever listen to or dance to. That usually means that when you listen to songs, you make a quick (usually subconscious) judgment about whether or not you like the song. If you like it, great. If you don’t, you don’t typically analyze why you don’t like it; you simply move on.
But as a songwriter, it’s very important to be able to analyze songs, to be able to know what you like, what you don’t, and to be able to put those thoughts into words. That kind of analysis will ultimately help your own songwriting efforts.
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There are many ways to analyze songs. You can do a harmonic analysis and pull a song apart to understand its chord structure, the vocal harmonies, and that sort of thing. Or you could analyze the lyrics to find deeper meaning. Or perhaps you might think about the melodies and consider how they’re constructed.
The main reason that you’d want to do all of this is that you want your own songs to be better. You want to discover what makes a song sound great, and then you want to be able to apply something you’ve learned to your own songs.
Since there are lots of ways to analyze songs, the list of what you could do in that regard could potentially be very long. Here’s a shorter list, however, of 5 things you can do to improve your ability to understand songs through analysis:
1. Make a structural map of a song
Try it this way: draw a timeline and indicate when verses, choruses and other parts of the design of the song happen. If you do that with a song like Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love”, it might look like this. You may not even be sure what to call the section, but that’s actually not all that important. Just get an understanding of when things change.
Once you done this, think about what the design tells you. Right away you’ll notice that the intro to “Tunnel of Love” is longer than is typical for most pop songs. Ask yourself why. What does the longer intro add to the power of the song? Think about the lengthy instrumental part in the middle of this song. What does Springsteen do to keep the energy of the song moving forward?
2. Identify any instrumental hooks or riffs
Learn to play them, and if you can write musical notation, try to work it out on paper. If not, simply make note of any riffs by calling them “Riff #1”, “Riff #2″… that sort of thing. You can make a line drawing of the riff if you can’t notate it. The clavinet riff that plays throughout Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” might look like this as a line drawing. It doesn’t need to be precise… just enough to remind you of the shape of the riff.
Once you done this, think about how any instrumental riffs relate to the melody line that Stevie sings. What are the similarities? Differences? Would this song be as successful without that noticeable riff?
3. Write out the chord progressions
Make a list of the verse progression, the chorus progression, and any other set of changes that happen throughout the song. Do the progressions partner up well? Compare the length of the verse and chorus progression. If there is a pre-chorus, does it lead well into the chorus? What keys does the bridge progression visit? There is so much you can do with chords.
4. Write out the lyric, and compare verse, chorus and any other section
There are many ways to look at lyrics. You can analyze them to identify any metaphors, double meaning, or any other poetic devices. Does the lyricist use rhyme as an organizational tool?
Look at the lyrics from an emotional level: where do the most emotional words and phrases occur? Does the lyric describe a story, or does it only imply a story? What do you like about these lyrics? Try to get a full picture of how the lyric adds to the power of the song.
5. Identify and compare the melodies
Learn to play all the melodies that happen throughout the song. Does the songwriter make use of contrast when you compare one to another? Where do the lowest melodies happen? The highest ones? How much of a role does repetition play?
Summarizing What You Learn
You may feel that you don’t really learn a lot by analyzing one song. The benefit of analysis comes from comparing several songs once you’ve done a dozen or more analyses. The more songs you analyze, the more you can compare things like intro length, melodic shape, lyrical elements, and so on.
And then, as you get better at analyzing songs, the real power of analysis is applying some of what you learn to your own songwriting. Take some older songs you’ve written, and analyze them in this way. You might find, for example, that your songs are a bit too similar, and that it’s time to branch out into new ways of writing.
And one other benefit of song analysis: it can give you a long list of things to discuss when talking about music with other songwriters. Analysis gives you a vocabulary you can use, and it also opens up your mind and allows you to be a more objective listener and writer of music.
Have a great melody, but stuck at the “how to add chords to it” stage? “How To Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step and with sound samples, how it’s done, with suggestions for chord substitutions that might work as well. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.