Songwriting Practice: Analyzing Music

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.

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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? Just as a quick side note, I want you guys to know that I have made a free printable .pdf file of this lesson available here for all of the people who sign up for my free newsletter. My free newsletter contains guitar tab lessons, professional guitar advice, informative articles, songwriting tips, and more exclusive cool stuff. Alright, alright, enough with the blatant advertising right?! OK, let's continue on... 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. For free access to more songwriting tips and advice on becoming a better guitar player, visit here and sign up for my free newsletter. (C) 2010 Ysrafel

36 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Freohr7
    I don't know...I would usually turn towards the 'just feel it out' mindset, but I tried this out anyway and have really been enjoying analyzing each song. It only gives you a better understanding and appreciation for what thoughts and ideas a professional artist puts into his songs.
    Karmekarten
    It is very very rare for human to be able to create more than a little bit of what they haven't heard themselves. Thats what makes the beatles and pachbell and all the other "inspired" musicians so great. But for the majority of musicians out there, what we create is merely a reflection of what surrounds us, the things we think and feel. This method of analyzing music is great to be able to recreate emotions that we have heard before but it can be a trap aswell. Mix it up. if something in a song moves you, figure out why and how to recreate it and it will become part of your style. analyzing is a usefull tool to educate ourselves (especialy for those of us that may not have been born with musical ability) but do enjoy enjoy music to and remember that everyone one here is different, has their own opinions, and thinks and feels things diffently. God Bless
    MelodicSlap
    Why do you all play guitar, if the answer is for the feeling, then feel it out. If not then we have difrent goals in mind so we will not agree
    basitar92
    Thanks man, I found this really helpful. To those who say that they "don't need rules, they prefer jamming," that's fun and all, but for composed pieces, such as the stuff Frank Zappa does, he practiced these same kinds of techniques.
    MustangMan311
    These are all the basic skills you learn in a music theory class on how to analyze music. Applying them to actual pieces and then understanding why the music works like it does is liberating and almost like reaching a new level of love for music. Those decrying this article simply haven't taken the time to learn things like this and they hear all about how bands like the Beatles knew no theory, or didn't use it to write their music and think that music written with theory is soulless. That's their problem. Great article; very concise for all the information covered!
    MyGoodLooks
    Very nice! I ask myself the same questions when I'm trying to make a song of mine sound better. They really help!
    Yimes
    Theory and songwriting "tricks", this analysis, helps you translate your emotions and all the melodies, in your head, to notes. So, great guide!
    Lindgren
    thegear wrote: The only ones who say this kills the feeling in music are the ones that can't learn this because they're too lazy or too stupid, knowing music makes you able to express anything you want instead of being some frustrated composer who has to settle with whatever sounds a little similar to what he or she had in mind in the first place.
    This I agree with. It's pretty much where I'm at, though, and I know a fair amount of music theory. I suppose what I need to practise is how to express the (often very abstract and diffuse) feelings that I want to convey. [/quote] ... if you truly want to be creative you have to write a rhapsody, you can do basically whatever you want on a rhapsody, it's my favorite style [/quote] Uhm, or you just do exactly whatever you want, and don't care about genres or styles at all. They are tools for categorizing, not formulas for songwriting.
    Chris_Basener
    great article - as with many art forms, creativity can be channeled through limitation. Working within certain parameters will allow you to explore all possibilties within that parameter. Once you've understood it you can use it to create a certain effect whenever YOU want.
    fastlanestoner
    you said exactly what I was too lazy to write an article of my own. kudos, sir. very well written.
    chinaredmusic
    Thanks for this. I must admit I quite enjoy looking into how songs are contstructed and using it to help my ideas. I've done it for a while and it's suprising how many similarities are between most of our favourite songs! I think anyone playing in a band/writing songs should definately use some of the ideas suggested here because it does help you understand the relationship between the other instruments.
    beno_guitar9
    Oyface wrote: This is for those who write music as a job, not to enjoy it. How can you enjoy it if you analyze every bit of it?
    true
    voodoochild23
    Oyface wrote: This is for those who write music as a job, not to enjoy it. How can you enjoy it if you analyze every bit of it?
    How do you do IT without analyzing it? That's why he wrote the article. You can't feel something unless you're doing it, can you? And if you try to write music with total freedom of thought, and feel your way through it, without knowing what you're doing and why, well then you're wasting your time.
    skypilot3764
    Ysrafel, Outstanding article. These guidelines are great to use when I get hung up in a particular area of a song and can't seem to find a way forward or through. Thanks for making a list that's is so concise.
    thegear
    cmon someone reply to what i have to say, im freezing down here lol
    ultimate-slash
    There's some really good stuff in here, though it is primarily for people who actually want to spend time on writing music and understanding what they write and why they write, and not for people who believe music just consists of jamming away and who feel that an hour is already too much time to spend on a song. There's some really great things in here though.
    linus.d
    This is for those who write music as a job, not to enjoy it. How can you enjoy it if you analyze every bit of it?
    I enjoy music even though I analyse most of the things I hear. The more you listen, the more you learn, as your bag of tricks grows bigger
    Draconis93
    shadowmaster036 wrote: I think this is a good technique when used in moderation... You obviously can't go through writing a song while asking all of these questions. But say if you're having a hard time figuring out a rhythm pattern you can try it for just that section of the song...
    Hear, Hear.
    shadowmaster036
    I think this is a good technique when used in moderation... You obviously can't go through writing a song while asking all of these questions. But say if you're having a hard time figuring out a rhythm pattern you can try it for just that section of the song...
    Oyface
    This is for those who write music as a job, not to enjoy it. How can you enjoy it if you analyze every bit of it?
    ilentaf
    Reading this totally turns me off songwriting, I think if you start asking yourself these questions your never gonna be happy with your music. Fair enough, structure is something that I do consider, but apart from that I just like to get together with my band and jam. Just my opinion...
    The_Raven
    Flogger_92 wrote: MelodicSlap wrote: nopppppeeeee let the feeling guide you, advanced techniqutes used by classical musicians were simply invented by humans who felt it out, feeee tha muda****a out Couldn't be more wrong. Although good songwriting may come 'naturally' to a few very talented people even then you'll find their songs contain many of the above techniques. Go ahead and analyse some of your favourite songs like the article says and you'll see just how many times these techniques occur. This is a great reference point when writing songs, thanks for this guide!
    Exactly. Those songs that really move you, often were created with that specific purpose in mind, using techniques like those outlined here. Great article dude, I will try writing those twenty songs!
    Ysrafel
    Hi guys, As always thanks very much for the positive and creative comments! Your feedback is much appreciated Here is just a little extra insight, feel free to let me know if I am wrong or not.. I definitely understand the perspective of feeling music and creating music based on your feelings or emotional state. This is where music comes from! However, upon further inspection, we can use guidelines and ideas from music theory and composition study in order to rationalize the best ways to understand the creation of emotion through music. This is not a strict set of rules, but rather, a type of methodology to be used as a guide to self expression. It very well may be/is that the 'masters' of baroque, classical, romantic, modern music and such created music only by feel. This is why we still remember (and study) them today Now that we have created a means of understanding how music is made (through music theory and other studies), thankfully not every musician is forced to determine everything by feel alone. Guidelines for music theory and composition are there to help people make rational sense of how emotion is made in music in order to drastically speed up this process. (Disclaimer: This lesson is not a full and 100% complete guideline, just something I consider a good reference) Thanks again everyone for the feedback!
    thegear
    The only ones who say this kills the feeling in music are the ones that can't learn this because they're too lazy or too stupid, knowing music makes you able to express anything you want instead of being some frustrated composer who has to settle with whatever sounds a little similar to what he or she had in mind in the first place. Yes it's less creative to write on a specific genre, because you have to follow certain rules to make it belong, let's say you wanna write a funky song, that means chords with 7th, 9th or 11th, avoid harmonizing using 3rds or 6ths,4/4 metric usually, guitar with a lot of muting, a bass line with presence and very leading with a tendency to repetition etc etc, if you truly want to be creative you have to write a rhapsody, you can do basically whatever you want on a rhapsody, it's my favorite style
    Draven Grey
    Great guidelines to fall back on. Having those in mind while creating a song will give you much more control over the journey you take the listener on, and how effective or powerful the song is. And like you said, it's not a list of rules, but it is something to keep in mind to fine tune and tweak songs into much more powerful expressions. They especially work well when feeling stuck in writing a song. If it were summed up, I bet everyone here writes this way simply by asking the questions, "Is this song saying what I want it to? Is it cool?" as they write.
    Anacrusis12
    Great "guide". It's of a way to actually know what you're subconsciously doing already (as some of you say "feeling it"). Seriously, anyone who doesn't ask themselves these questions while writing will usually create very simple (sometimes boring) songs. I find it interesting and sometimes challenging to write in a specific form. It keeps me interested in writing music and I find that my songs are more enjoyable to listen to when some analyzation is done.
    lank81
    One person whom I believe is a great guitarist / songwriter of today is John Frusciante. I guarantee he employs many of these techniques. He changes key, chord subs, inversions/voicings to add depth and texture to all of his songs. I'm sure he gets a feeling first and creates but then elaborates on that first thought. I know the more we work on a song the more complex / textured it becomes. Sometimes you can over think but its best to add some thought in to your work after first letting it flow.
    Flogger_92
    MelodicSlap wrote: nopppppeeeee let the feeling guide you, advanced techniqutes used by classical musicians were simply invented by humans who felt it out, feeee tha muda****a out
    Couldn't be more wrong. Although good songwriting may come 'naturally' to a few very talented people even then you'll find their songs contain many of the above techniques. Go ahead and analyse some of your favourite songs like the article says and you'll see just how many times these techniques occur. This is a great reference point when writing songs, thanks for this guide!