Analyze This!

Improve your songwriting by analyzing the songs you like.

The majority of music listeners relate to the constant stream of songs coming at them on a scale from “love it!" to “not interested”  to “turn that crap off!” As songwriters, we can improve our craft dramatically by moving beyond our initial reactions to a song and asking why we love it or hate it, how the song achieves its intended vibe or misses the mark, and what the building blocks of the song are. This detailed investigation is known as analysis.

There are two basic types of analysis. Objective analysis deals with the technical structure of the song, i.e. the order of verses and choruses or the key and chord progression. It can be very useful in gaining insight into the mechanics of songwriting and in identifying trends in the genre you are working in. Subjective analysis addresses how the technical elements of the song come together to create its mood and meaning. Subjective analysis is also a personal exploration of why you like or dislike a song, and which elements resonate with you.

By analyzing the music we listen to, and especially the music we enjoy, we gain insight into how and why it is effective. We can then add those techniques to our own songwriting toolbox and integrate them in our own way into our songs.

Objective Analysis: What are the technical building blocks of the song?

Form:

  • what is the form?
  • does it follow or divert from the form of other songs in the same genre?
  • how does the form function in telling the song’s story or expressing its mood? (subjective)

Chord Progression:

  • What are the chords?
  • What is the key?
  • Does the progression fit into the tonal system (see my LEGOs post)? If not, does it fit into another system?
  • Does it change keys?
  • How does the melody fit with the harmony?
  • How does the harmony contribute to the mood or feeling of the song? (subjective)

Arrangement and Production Style

  • How does the arrangement build and/or strip down in terms of instrumentation? What is the textural profile of the song as a whole?
  • How does the arrangement enhance the meaning of the lyrics? (subjective)
  • What mood or feeling does the arrangement create, and how does it achieve that? (subjective)
  • What instrument or instruments are most prominent in the mix?
  • Is the production style (recording and mixing) typical of a specific genre? Does it have any unique quirks?
  • Are there any subtle details in the song that the casual listener wouldn’t consciously notice, but add to the effectiveness of the song?
  • How does the arrangement and production compare to other songs in the same genre? Can you identify any trends?

Rhythm/Tempo:

  • Is the song fast, medium or slow?
  • What type of rhythms are present in the song (flowing? staccato? heavy? complex? unified?)
  • Are there contrasting rhythms?
  • How is rhythm used to enhance the meaning and feeling of the song? (subjective)

Lyrics:

  • What is the rhyming scheme?
  • Are the lyrics mostly literal, metaphorical, or impressionistic in their meaning?
  • Is this song telling a story? How does it unfold?
  • How do the lyrics fit with the rhythm and melody?
  • Are the lyrics hooky and memorable? (subjective)
  • Do they make sense or just sound good? (subjective)
  • What is the relationship between the lyrics and elements of the song that create mood (tempo, chord progression, etc)? (subjective)


Mood & Function:

  • What is the purpose of the song? Is it a dancy party song? Is it poetic and thought provoking?
  • What is the general mood of the song? Does the mood change? (subjective)
  • What is the most important or driving element of the song? The rhythm? The lyrics? An emotional state? (subjective)

Subjective Analysis: How do you relate to the song?

What qualities in the song move you, and how are they achieved in each element of the song?

  • Chord progression
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Style of vocal or instrumental parts
  • Lyrics

-Can you identify the one key element that makes this song stand out for you?
-What aspects of the song don’t work for you?

After you have analyzed a song, I guarantee you will hear that song in a new way, and hopefully take something away from it that you can use in your own writing.