One of the most important parts of understanding how to express yourself with music is to be able to analyze specific musical elements in order to find out how they affect the listener. The more you know about specific ways to create an idea, the more clear of an idea you can make when you write a song.
There are many various ways to express the same idea with music. For example, if you wanted to create the idea of "sadness," you could achieve this in many different ways. You could use a minor key, you could focus on scale degree 2 of the minor scale in your melodies, you could use a slow tempo, you could use descending melodic lines, and so forth..
The more you analyze music and practice song writing, the better you will become when it comes to expressing your ideas in a clear understandable fashion. When you stop to think about how to express musical ideas, where did you get those ideas from? You got them from hearing music that other people have made. So by listening to more music, you can increase your capacity for understanding how to create certain emotions with music in different scenarios. This doesn't mean you will blatantly take a melody from someone else's music, but rather you will use the same musical idea for when you create your own music.
I've created a very powerful list of questions for you to ask yourself in order to analyze a song. I'd like you to use this to analyze other people's music, and to analyze your own music. Doing so will help you to get a clear picture of what is being expressed, and how to express it.
1. What is the form of the song?
What is the overall song structure? How does this form structure affect the feel of the song? Some examples of organizing form could be Intro - Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Break - Chorus, or perhaps A B A B C B, or on a more advanced level specific types of "classical" forms like binary, fugue, sonata, etc. Observe how the length or shortness of the different sections in a song affect the feel of the melodies, phrases, or rhythm. Also, observe the length of the phrases and song sections.
2. What harmony is being used?
In other words, what chords are used? What is the key of the song or the different sections in the song? Identify what the actual chords are(note sounded harmonically, or at the same time), and what the chords are which are implied by arpeggios or melodies with notes occurring one after the other.
3. What emotions does this piece portray? What harmonies give these emotions?
What is the overall main feeling of this song? Is it just one feeling, or are there more than one feeling(usually different sections)? Observe how you feel when you hear specific chords throughout the song.
4. How does the rhythm affect the feel of this song? or any specific part?
Do the rhythms used in the song convey a specific idea? Can you feel a building of momentum at any point due to the rhythm of the notes used? Does rhythm play a strong part in the overall feeling of this song?
5. Does the song seem to repeat common themes or phrases?
Sometimes music will repeat melodies (or "motives") in order to emphasize a specific idea or emotion. This is also used to create unity within the song to help give balance or to help tie the music together.
6. If there are modulations, what emotions do they evoke in the music?
Modulations are when music changes its tonal center (the note that every other note functions to go to or delay going to). This can be used as an effect to generate a sense of new arrival. If you can, identify the specific modulatory techniques which are used (if any). What feeling do you feel when the music modulates to a new key?
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7. What keeps the song interesting over the span of a few minutes?
What are the major parts of interest? What do you think is something about the music which compels the listener to continue listening?
8. What kind of texture is there throughout the song?
Does the music contain a thick texture with many different parts happening at once, many melodic lines stacked on top of each other, or full chords (like a 6 string guitar chord, a full orchestra band, etc.)? Does the music contain a think texture with few parts happening at once, few melodic parts stacked on top of each other, or chords which only contain a few notes (like a 3 string guitar chord, piano playing a triad with only 3 notes, etc.)?
9. What kind of dynamics are there?
Are there various instances of different dynamics? How do they effect the feel of the piece? What is the overall loudness of the song? Does this change at any point? If so, how does it affect the feeling of that musical idea or section?
10. What kind of timbre is used?
What are the instruments used in this song? What techniques are used by these instruments, and what kind of feeling do these techniques create in the music?
11. What is the harmonic rhythm of the various sections in this piece?
How many chords are there per measure? A fast harmonic rhythm will contain many chord changes in a certain period of time (for instance, 4 chord changes per measure), a slow harmonic rhythm will contain few chord changes during a certain period of time (for instance, 1 chord change every 8 measures). Harmonic rhythm has a strong influence on the momentum in a song. It may change at various parts in order to create a certain feeling.
To start using this lesson to help you get better at song writing right now, choose 20 (no less) songs to analyze (must be someone else's music). Try to find songs which you think are highly expressive. Analyze these songs over the next month or two (2-4 songs a week). This will take a bit of time for each song, but will be well worth it. Over the next month or two, you will notice a very significant increase in your musical expression skills and your overall ability to create ideas off the top of your head in any given musical situation.
As a last note, if you pick all songs within the same genre, this will drastically improve your potential to write for that genre. You will begin to notice specific patterns in the way the music is written, which will enable you to be able to think off the top of your head with great ease when writing for that genre. If you pick songs from various genres, it will give you a much more broad perspective of how to express yourself in various scenarios.
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(C) 2010 Ysrafel