A 250-Year-Old Music Lesson for Songwriters

Much of what songwriters do today was established at least 250 years ago in the composition of opera.


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Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart In San FranciscoI mention quite often on this blog the importance of individual song elements progressing as a song moves from beginning to end. It’s not just chords that show this sense of progression; every single song element you can think of works together with all other elements to create this sense of music moving forward. If you study music history, you’ll know that this is nothing new. Progression has always been a vital part of the success of music, even centuries ago.

If you listen to Classical opera, for example, you’ll know that the majority of the music is recitatives followed by arias. A recitative is a short “song” during which the singer describes a situation, relates part of a story, and/or converses with another character. The “recit”, as it’s called in the business, is usually very lightly scored, with rather creative melodic shapes and phrasing. At its conclusion, the aria starts, during which the singer describes the feelings stirred up by the recitative. A typical opera will fluctuate back and forth between recits and arias. Here’s an example from Mozart’s famous “Don Giovanni”. The recit shows the typical “chopped up phrasing” with sparse instrumentation. The aria, which starts at 0’48”, features more regular phrasing and fuller instrumentation.

It is that fluctuating back and forth between descriptive and emotive singing throughout an opera that keeps an audience entranced and entertained. At some point, nearer the end of the opera than the beginning, one of the arias will be quite exciting, pulling all story lines together in a climactic moment that makes the audience feel that they are coming to the end of their musical journey.

That recitative-aria construction eventually made its way into pop music. You clearly hear it in “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, and made most famous by Tony Bennett, where the “recitative” gives important background to the passionate love demonstrated for the “city by the bay.”

These days, songwriters are less likely to write recitatives. They start right in with the aria (i.e., the “song”), but that need for narrative followed by emotion is still there, and still very important. You still need to construct your music to oscillate between narrative and emotional lyrics.

To see this clearly demonstrated, listen to Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up“.

Except for the obvious difference in compositional style, the same basic requirements still exist in today’s pop music that were in place when Mozart composed “Don Giovanni”. In fact, it all points back even centuries before Mozart, when the contrast principle — juxtaposing one musical idea with an opposite one — became a crucial requirement for keeping listeners entertained.

And whether today’s pop song writers know it or not, they are simply fulfilling that 600-year-old concept in a 21st century way.


Stealing from Classical Music to Write Your Next Song

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Violin and MusicThere’s a theory that not a lot has changed since the early days of what we call “Classical music” (i.e. the year 1600 through to the present). In fact, you’d be fairly safe in estimating that at least 90% of the difference between J. S. Bach and Bob Dylan really amounts to differences in performance style, not compositional style. Though the sound of today’s pop music is radically different from the sound of a Beethoven symphony, the compositional structure, the “rebar”, if you will, is very much the same. The constructional elements you find in the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are pretty much the same elements you’ll find in the music of Dylan, Bowie and Springsteen. And beyond.

Chord progressions work the same because the rules of harmony haven’t changed. Dominant chords still want to resolve to tonic chords.

It may surprise you (maybe even disappoint you?) to know that Classical composers were not usually very innovative with their choice of chords. In fact, if you strip Bach’s counterpoint down to its basic chord structures, you’re looking at something that might be considered downright dull: lots of I-chords and V-chords, with ii-chords and IV-chords thrown in for good measure. What complicated things harmonically was that he visited many keys within the same work.

Classical progressions were simple because Classical composers knew that most of their innovation had to happen in other elements within their compositions. If they innovated too much with regard to the way their chord progressions worked, the music would come crashing down.

It was later on, during the later Romantic era (mid-1800s through to the 20th century) that composers started to elongate and expand their chord progressions, and take listeners on longer “musical journeys.” But even in those musically complicated days of composers like Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, their chord progressions still worked, just with more twists and turns that made journey more interesting.

So that should mean that if you take a Classical era symphony and condense it to its basic chord progressions, those same progressions should work in pop music, right? Yes!

A good example would be “A Lover’s Concerto”, sung by 60s pop group The Toys. The writers, Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, simply took Bach’s “Minuet in G”, changed the time signature, and of course the performance style, and delivered a song that was not only something that sounded original, but reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.

But what about taking original chord progressions from Classical works and constructing entirely new songs? It’s easy to do; simply analyze those original works, and you’ll discover how beautifully they’ll accompany anything you’re writing today in the 21st century.

Here are a few progressions to get you started. A simple YouTube search of the original Classical work will show you how the composer used the progression:

Pachelbel: Canon in D:

D  A  Bm  F#m  G  D  G  A  D

Mozart: “Laudate Dominum:

E  F#m7  E/G#  Aadd9  B/A  E/G#  B7  Esus4  E

Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Cellos in G minor:

Gm  Cm  Gm  Cm  D  D/C  Gm/Bb  A  Dm

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7: ii. Allegretto:

Am  E/G#  E  Am  (Am)  C/G  G  C

C  B  Bm  [A  Am]  Am  [E/G#  Am]  E  Am

Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 7:

F  Gm  C7  F  Gm/Bb  C  F

G  C  G  C  G  C  G   C  (return to beginning)

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 1:

C  G  C  F  C  G  C

And here’s a sample of the complicated way Russian composer Igor Stravinsky used harmonic progression:

Stravinsky: Le Baiser de la Fée: Scene III.1

Am  F7 F#dim  F Fdim  Amaj7  F#m

And one other technique for borrowing from the classics is a bit like “modified stealing.” The story goes that Adler and Ross, who wrote the musical “Pajama Game”, took the opening bars of Mozart’s Sonata in C (K.545), slowed the tempo massively, and turned it into the blockbuster ballad, “Hey There.”


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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The Song as a Miniature Musical Form

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Violin and MusicMany of you know that I have a particular interest in the seemingly disparate worlds of songwriting and Classical music. I’m intrigued by the fact that compositional technique that works when composing Classical music is pretty close to the technique that works in pop song composition. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the major differences between Classical and pop music are differences relating to performance style, not compositional technique.

The short way of saying this is: the way the world’s greatest songwriters (Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, etc.) compose is closer to the way Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms wrote than you might believe or think possible.

Backing rhythms for each genre are usually, of course, poles apart. And chord preference (though not as much as you might think) can be somewhat different.

But much of the remainder of the writing tasks: creating melodies, generating momentum, even the ways writers create their instrumentations, etc., are remarkably similar, even if the instruments themselves are completely different.

And that similarity is the reason why it’s quite easy to take a Classical work and convert it into a modern pop song with just a simple adjustment in the performance style and instrumentation.

In most of the ways that really matter, pop songs are a miniature form of what Classical musicians were creating a couple of centuries ago.

So how far can you take this? Exactly how similar are Classical and pop music? Take a look at the following list of compositional “rules” that have guided large-scale Classical composition for the past few hundred years. And you’ll see that in many ways, pop song writers are still trying to do the same thing. Just… in miniature, and only a little differently.

  1. Most Classical melodies benefit from a “high point”, after which the musical phrase ends usually lower in pitch. (Classical example: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J.S. Bach). Pop song example: “Lay Lady Lay” (Bob Dylan)
  2. Most Classical chord progressions are a musical journey that start on the I-chord, venture away, and then back to that chord. (Both Classical and pop songs display this as a typical harmonic feature.)
  3. Most Classical works use building/subtracting instrumentation as a typical method for building/subtracting energy and momentum. (Classical example: Bolero (Maurice Ravel). Pop song example: “Solsbury Hill” (Peter Gabriel).
  4. Classical music typically contrasts two or more musical ideas or themes, using one, then the other(s), and often developing musical ideas that combine each. (Classical example: Symphony #5 (Beethoven). Pop song example: “Close to the Edge” (Yes). NOTE: Not a “pop song” in the usual usage of that term, but definitely in the pop genre.
  5. Classical music usually builds energy as it goes, and does it in different ways. One way is to start quietly, build energy, then back away, then build again (possibly several times) to the end (Classical example: 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky), pop song example: “The Last Resort” (The Eagles). Another way is to start rather strongly, then back away, then build to the end. (Classical example: Hallelujah Chorus (G.F. Handel). Pop song example: “Raise Your Glass” (Pink)

There are actually countless hundreds or more of examples where pop music structure resembles typical Classical composition. If you want to spread your musical wings and see where you can go with pop music, start listening to Classical. It will amaze you how inspired you can become!

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
Follow Gary on Twitter


“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is one of a set of 6 songwriting e-books that will show you how to write great songs, harmonize your melodies, and give you hundreds of chord progressions in the process.

PURCHASE and DOWNLOAD the e-books for  your laptop/desktop



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