The best songwriters are also the best analyzers of music. If you don’t have the ability to dig down into your own songs and assess them objectively before your audience hears them, you may not discover problems until it’s too late.
There are lots of things you can do which, taken together, make it most likely you’ll catch problems before the song “goes live”. You can get the opinions of other seasoned songwriters, as well as the opinions of other excellent musicians (whose expertise may not specifically be songwriting.)
But before getting advice or help from others, it’s best if you do your own analysis. And the best way to do that is this: isolate the various components of your song, and look at each element separately.
Remember that it is an important songwriting principle that all elements of a song need to work together, and in that regard the best songs are often greater than the sum of their parts.
That being true, it’s best to start by putting your attention on each component of a song, apart from how they interact with other components as a first step. Once you’ve got those separate components sounding the way you want them, then you can assess how they work together.
So what are the elements you should be looking at? Here’s a short list:
- Lyrics. I think good analysis should start with the lyric, because lyrics have a way of making or breaking songs. Read the lyric as if it were a poem, and pay close attention to any words or lines that don’t seem to be working well. The words and lines should feel conversational, with most of the words being the ones you’d use chatting with a friend. Once that’s sounding right, say the lines of lyric using the basic rhythms that the song will demand.
- Chords. The progressions, particularly those of the chorus, should be tonally strong, meaning that they point to one particular chord as representing the chorus’s key. If anything feels weak or awkward, you may still have work to do. Once you’ve got the chords working the way you want, sing the melody while playing the chords. It all needs to work.
- Melodies. Most of the best song melodies move mainly in a stepwise fashion, with occasional leaps. This means that you should notice lots of occurrences of one note moving to the one that’s next in the scale, either up or down, with a few times where it might leap several notes up or down. McCartney melodies are great models for this. Check out the melody for “Blackbird, “Hey Jude”, or “Golden Slumbers,” and you’ll hear this important balance. Then sing your melodies with the lyrics. Emotional moments should be moving upward.
You can keep going with this, of course. Play your song as an instrumental, for example, and be fussy with how everything is sounding. Then add in other elements — melodies and lyrics — and with each addition you should still be liking what you’re hearing.
Notice that in the three steps listed above, they each start with you putting a magnifying glass on just one element, and then once you’re happy, pairing it up with another element.
This methodical way of working will help you catch problems, and the benefit is that it doesn’t really matter what your songwriting process is: lyrics-first, melody-first, chords-first… your analysis simply looks at each element as a separate entity and assesses their respective strengths.
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.