How to Analyze Songs, and Why You’ll Benefit

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The songwriters who get better quickly are the ones who know how to analyze music. Look at it this way: If you don’t have the ability to analyze songs, you have only your instincts to help you improve. With analytical skills, you are able to determine why successful songs work, and can transfer that knowledge to your own musical creations. But what does music analysis actually mean, and how do you do it?

Music analysis is a two-step process:

  1. THE SKETCHING STAGE: Come up with a map or plan of the song, including elements such as the song’s formal structure, chord progressions, melodic shapes, lyrics, etc.
  2. THE ANALYSIS STAGE: Determine why those elements of the song work or fail, and figure out what might be done to improve the weaker elements.

It goes without saying that this kind of analysis can (and should) be done on your own, and other musicians’, songs.

And you should also note that it is quite possible to find that a song you personally dislike might actually be a good song, with a strong structure. Music analysis can include your own likes or dislikes, but it’s really not an important part of analysis. You can use your own aversions to a song as a starting point for analysis, but be objective enough to accept that songs you don’t care for could still be good.

So how does one analyze a song? Here are some bits of advice:

  1. Give a song a few listens before beginning an analysis. I would recommend listening at least once for every minute of length. So for a standard song of 4-5 minutes, listen 4 or 5 times before analyzing. With each listening, you hear things you didn’t hear before.
  2. To begin the “Sketching Stage,” take a piece of paper and sketch out a map that describes every formal section in that song, with timings. Here’s an example of one I did for Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.
  3. Try to come up with a line drawing that shows the shapes of the different melodies used in the song. Here’s one I did of some of the melodies in Imogen Heap’s “Tidal.
  4. Produce chord charts of the various progressions used within the song.
  5. Write out or print up the lyrics, and give them several read-throughs, noting the rhythms of the words as used in the song.
  6. To begin the “Analysis Stage”, take another look at the formal map you created in Step 2 above. You should be seeing that a song intro is relatively short, that verses and choruses generally have the same or similar length, that the chorus happens before the 1-minute mark, etc.
  7. Analyze the melodies. While you should be seeing that there are some contrasting elements between verse and chorus (either with regard to melodic shape or with rhythmic activity), you should also notice some similarities (i.e., use of melodic motifs)
  8. Analyze the chord progressions. As with melodies, you’ll likely find that good songs show a strong connection between the chords used in the verse and those of the chorus. Bridge progressions should start on a chord different from the start of the chorus.

In addition to those 8 steps, you’ll also want to analyze the song for other aspects: Is the song in the right key, not just for the singer, but for the emotional impact of the song? Is the tempo right? Is the instrumentation interesting? Is the song too long? Is the bridge too long and meandering?

Analyze a few good hit songs to get your feet wet, and then try analyzing your own. It’s a real eye-opener, and really help you improve your writing skills.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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6 Comments

  1. This is a great article, Gary – one the best I’ve read on song analysis. There are so many stories of great songwriters and recording artists that were about to ditch their best songs because they didn’t like them. Many of these songs became their biggest hits. I definitely resonate with the concept of being objective, even if it’s a song that is less than desirable to the writer.

    Your third point in analysis is also so important. To me, verses are often the most avoided in terms of melody lines. There is so much talk about focusing on the hook of the chorus, but changing up the melody line in the verse, even if it’s by one note can create an interesting and memorable vocal. For example, adding a 7th over the major triad (resulting in a major 7) can sound cool and give a song a completely different vibe.

    I also feel songwriters should stay connected to their genre as there are distinguishing elements of each. Country is a big example of this. So is modern rock which tends to be based around minor chords. Of course the composer doesn’t want to be put in a box, but it’s good to at least be aware, especially if the songwriter is serious about pitching their songs.

    Thanks for the post. Enjoyed it.
    Hugh Hession
    Making It In Music

    Reply
    • Thanks very much for your comments, Hugh. I appreciate it. Also, I took a look at your website, “Making It In Music”, and was very impressed with the info there. I wish you great success with it!
      -Gary

      Reply
  2. I have a extremely successful songwriting analysis worksheet I’ve created over time that I’d like to share with anyone because It has helped me tremendously. I have these listed on a normal notecard to dissect a song and notice it’s craft and why it’s so effective for me so I can replicate the fundamentals.

    Remember it’s how you write. not what you write. Ideas are just vessels. They aren’t good or bad. The effectiveness (ability to connect with listeners heart and mind) lies in how you write. harnessing craft and inspiration and using senses to paint pictures and use the tools (words) to say which can’t be said by breaking bigger things down, and building them back up with smaller things (analyzing)

    Song Title: (study how it relates to piece and what the central message is saying in relation to chorus)

    Emotion/Experience: (how does it make me feel? when I write a song, one of the first questions is what experience do I want to cause, what tone? bc songwriting is about effectively causing an experience in the heart and mind of listeners. Don’t be a selfish writer and write sappy journal style writing that only benefits you. learn craft.)

    Lyric Type: (feeling, thinking, story, contemplating or any combination)

    Structure: (how does verses add more to the situation and structure serve song)

    Hooks: (What resonates for you or instantly catches your attention? Why? a lot of time the catchiest part of a song is a key phrase, which one and why?)

    Verse 1: (how do they introduce scenario, characters, or lyric concept. verses = what you’re writing, with descriptive imagery, details, and specifics and sense: movement, sight, touch, hearing, )

    Chorus: (should be able to stand alone and hold weight and meaning, summarize song. chorus = why you’re writing it. what does it mean? whats the purpose? what are you saying?)

    Images: (what phrases or words paint picture for you? these are details and specifics?)

    Powerhouse Words: (adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. remember these words create the difference between bored audience and a listening audience so when you write choose good ones. Example, did he run or did he sprint?)

    Additional Notes:

    Maxton Barber

    Reply
    • Hi Max:

      Thanks so very much for your generous contribution to this article. The steps you outline are well thought-out and detailed. I’m sure many songwriters will benefit.

      Thanks again,
      Gary

      Reply
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