One simple trick to improve your music writing skills…

Whether you’re a complete beginner or seasoned music composer, there is ONE, unbeatable trick that will ALWAYS improve your music writing skills…

And the best thing is that it’s FREE!

So what is it?

 

I know, I know, you’ve probably thought about that one before 😉

and yet, until now, you haven’t been doing it that much, have you?

It’s not always obvious who to study and how to approach this exercise.

Here’s where this post will help:

  • I’ll share with you a 6 step process that will get you going in no time.
  • I’ll demonstrate the process with 3 case studies.

By setting aside some time to do this regularly, you’ll basically be putting yourself through an awesome music degree completely tailored to your needs, completely for free!

Wherever you are now in your music career, this exercise will keep you on your toes 🙂

***

The simple 6 step process

  1. Pick a song and listen to it on repeat
  2. Write down what you love or loathe about the song
  3. Map out the arrangement
  4. Make a list of instruments used
  5. Analyze the lyrics (if there are any)
  6. Notice what’s unique about the song, what makes it tick

 

Make it simple.

Do NOT overanalyze.

 

Just go with your guts, basically.

The point is not to spend hours and hours trying to define the essence of the song and what makes it great.

The point is to quickly understand how the song was put together and why it creates the emotions it does (whatever those emotions are).

Spend 30 minutes or so going through the 6 questions.

If you start thinking you should spend 3 hours analyzing one song, you’ll end up never doing it and missing out on all you could have learned from a short study session.

Not sure what I’m on about?

Here are 3 examples.

***

Case Study #1: Bob Dylan, Ballad of Hollis Brown

 

1.Pick a song and listen to it on repeat

Well, there’s really no need to explain here…

Just pick one song and listen to it on repeat!

It can be a song you love, a song you hate, a genre you already write in or a genre you’d like to understand better, maybe there’s just one passage you love and would like to emulate.

It doesn’t matter. Just pick one and stick with it for 30+ minutes.

 

2.Write down what you love or loathe about the song

What I love about it?

It makes me cry. It’s incredibly moving. The images are compelling. It’s simply a beauty of storytelling!

What I loathe about it?

Nothing really.

I guess maybe I’d say it’s not the genre of music I listen to most days.

If you told me, here’s a song with just a guitar and a guy telling a story, I’d likely roll my eyes most of the time, thinking “here we go again”, some emotional sap is going to whine about his latest breakup.  

Still, in this case, it just works for me, I love it!

 

3.Map out the arrangement

Pretty easy that one 🙂

11 verses and that’s it!

No chorus. No bridge. No nothing apart from a short instrumental break right before the resolution.

That’s not surprising. Traditionally, folk songs are structured around story-telling which sit well with an AAA Form.

The wave of the song is fairly linear: you can clearly see when the vocals are in.

You’ll notice, however, that it also shows a subtle growth in intensity throughout the song as the narrative builds up tension.

 

4.Make a list of instruments used

Again, easy that one!

A guitar and a voice.

Simples that music making lark! 🙂

 

5.Analyze the lyrics (if there are any)

Now here we go… this is where it gets interesting!

There may be no musical chorus, Bob Dylan did write a sort of lyrical chorus.

You’ll notice that each verse (or perhaps in this case we should refer to poetic stanzas) is punctuated by the repetition of the first line.

This repetition accentuates the strong emphasis on the progression of the story, with the quiet and repetitive guitar giving a sense of (almost hypnotic) impending doom.  

With the musical arrangement so completely stripped and melodic, the lyrics take center stage.

Now I’m not a great lyricist and have been focusing on instrumental music for the past 11 years, so this might not be a great example to develop my music writing skills BUT…

If I wanted to go down the folksy route, I would 100% start with Dylan’s masterclass.

Notice how the story progresses seamlessly, verse after verse.

Notice how the tension grows line after line.

 

Lyrics from Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Bob Dylan

Hollis Brown

He lived on the outside of town.
Hollis Brown
He lived on the outside of town.
With his wife and five children
And his cabin broken down.

You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
Your children are so hungry
That they don’t know how to smile.

Your babies’ eyes look crazy
They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve.
Your babies’ eyes look crazy
They’re a-tuggin’ at your sleeve.
You walk the floor and wonder why
With every breath you breathe.

The rats have got your flour
Bad blood it got your mare
The rats have got your flour
Bad blood it got your mare
If there’s anyone that knows
Is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
You prayed to the Lord above
Oh please send you a friend
Your empty pockets tell you
That you ain’t a-got no friend.

Your babies are crying louder now
It’s a-pounding on your brain
Your babies are crying louder now
It’s a-pounding on your brain
Your wife’s screams are stabbin’ you
Like the dirty drivin’ rain.

Your grass is turning black
There’s no water in your well
Your grass is turning black
There’s no water in your well
You spent your last lone dollar
On seven shotgun shells.

Way out in the wilderness
A cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness
A cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That’s hangin’ on the wall.

Your brain is a-bleedin’
And your legs can’t seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin’
And your legs can’t seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
That you’re holdin’ in your hand.

There’s seven breezes blowin’
All around the cabin door
There’s seven breezes blowin’
All around the cabin door
Seven shots ring out
Like the ocean’s pounding roar.

There’s seven people dead
On a south Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead
On a south Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born.

 

6.Notice what’s unique about the song, what makes it tick

The lyrics & vocal performance.

That’s what makes this song so unique.

The tension is incredible, breathtaking.

 

Case Study #2: Oasis, Wonderwall

 

1.Pick a song and listen to it on repeat

Again, there’s not much to explain…

Just pick one song and listen to it on repeat!

 

2.Write down what you love or loathe about the song

What I love about this song?

The way it brings people together on a night out.

What I loathe about the song?

If I put my pompous hat on, I don’t get it.

It’s repetitive, the lyrics don’t really make sense.

And yet, it works! Now that makes me curious 😉

 

3.Map out the arrangement

An easy way to map out an arrangement is to pick a pen and paper and draw the different sections.

Intro / Verse 1a / Verse 1b / Pre-Chorus / Chorus / Verse 2 / Pre-Chorus / Chorus / Chorus / Outro

Nothing surprising here.

Pop/Rock songs are usually structured around a verse/chorus dynamic with a strong and driving chorus that will be easy to remember and appeal to the audience.

 

4.Make a list of instruments used

Once again, you could use pen and paper to map out the various instrument parts.

You could also do this directly in a DAW.

Here’s the instrumentation (and arrangement) mapped out in Logic Pro 9.

In this case, Oasis presents a typical rock band line up: drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar and vocals.

Note that this does not mean you will not find rock bands with only one guitarist or with keyboards and other quirks such as brass and triangles.

It’s just not the case here.

 

5.Analyze the lyrics (if there are any)

This song is upbeat and highly repetitive: on top of the pre-choruses and choruses, the second verse borrows most of the lyrics from Verse 1a to give a sense of progression to the song (highlighted in light blue below).

The vocal range of the Gallaghers’ also means that the melodies they sing are accessible to most and the audience will want to sing along.

 

Lyrics from Wonderwall, Oasis

Verse 1

Today is gonna be the day that they’re gonna throw it back to you

By now you shoulda somehow realized what you gotta do

I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now


Back beat, the word is on the street that the fire in your heart is out

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before but you never really had a doubt

I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now

Pre-Chorus
And all the roads we have to walk are winding
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
But I don’t know how

Chorus
Because maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You’re my wonderwall

Verse 2
Today was gonna be the day but they’ll never throw it back to you

By now you shoulda somehow realized what you’re not to do

I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now

Pre-Chorus
And all the roads that lead you there are winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
But I don’t know how

Chorus
I said maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You’re my wonderwall

Chorus
I said maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
And after all
You’re my wonderwall

Outro
I said maybe
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
You’re gonna be the one that saves me
You’re gonna be the one that saves me

 

6.Notice what’s unique about the song, what makes it tick

You just want to sing it, don’t you? 😉

Outside this exercise, I’ve never listened to this tune outside a pub/club.

Still, I remember vividly a cover band struggling to get the crowd going in a pub in London.

Then, as they started performing Wonderwall, the place started buzzing. It was incredible! Everybody was singing!

Why?

Repetitive lyrics and universal vocal range = easy to sing.

That does it.

Nobody quite gets it (I’ve checked on the internets :p) and yet, pretty much everybody sings it.

 

Case Study #3: M83, Midnight City

 

1.Pick a song and listen to it on repeat

Again, it could be any song.

For this particular exercise, I decided to go with songs from 3 different genres but you don’t have to.

Midnight City is closer to what I listen to most days so it made sense to try to figure out why I’m attracted to that kind of atmosphere.

 

2.Write down what you love or loathe about the song

What I love about the song?

It’s dark and euphoric at the same time.

I like the mix of textures from the different synths.

I can relate to the theme of the song, picturing myself walking alone in the busy streets of London at night, watching the debauchery from afar, with an air of superiority and a hint of jealousy.

Oh and I bloody LOVE the saxophone at the end!! 🙂

What I don’t like about the song?

The ending. It just fade out, that’s disappointing. There’s no resolution.

 

3.Map out the arrangement

M83’s track is typical of a dancefloor-compatible electronic track:

  • strong intro;
  • verse/chorus dynamic;
  • breakdown;
  • verse/chorus; and
  • outro.

Looking at the soundwave of the song, you can see a clear distinction between the verses and chorus sections.

In addition, three distinctive sections appear:

  • a rising intro;
  • a break towards the middle of the song; and
  • another rise before the faded outro.

 

4.Make a list of instruments used

The instrumentation consists mainly of bass, drum machines, synthesizers and pads.

It is upbeat, with a fairly high tempo (you will not find many dancefloor tracks lower than 100BPM) and multiple melodic and rhythmic hooks.

 

5.Analyze the lyrics (if there are any)

The lyrics are HIGHLY repetitive, almost hypnotic.

The contrast between the movement from the music and the waiting described in the lyrics, in my mind, convey perfectly that peculiar feeling of feeling lonely in a crowded city.

All the bustling living beings, the flashing lights and cars and still an empty heart.

Now… wait a second… you may be thinking I’m blowing smoke out of my ass here.

In a sense I am.

I have no clue what M83 meant for me to feel and how they tried to connect with my emotions.

The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what they were going for!

What matters is that certain musical and lyrical elements move me and make me feel stuff.

I can use that in my own music.

That’s all that matters.

 

Lyrics from Midnight City, M83

Waiting in a car
Waiting for a ride in the dark

The night city grows
Look and see her eyes, they glow

Waiting in a car
Waiting for a ride in the dark

Drinking in the lounge
Following the neon signs

Waiting for a roar
Looking at the mutating skyline
The city is my church
It wraps me in the sparkling twilight

Waiting in a car
Waiting for the right time
Waiting in a car
Waiting for the right time
Waiting in a car
Waiting for the right time
Waiting in a car
Waiting for the right time
Waiting in a car
Waiting for a ride in the dark

 

6.Notice what’s unique about the song, what makes it tick

What’s unique about the song?

The saxophone outro is pretty special.

The synth hook in the intro has a cool, unusual texture (to my ears at least)

What makes it tick?

For me, it’s simple.

It’s the general theme of the song.

I associate it very strongly with my three years living in London, the loneliness and sense of isolation that came with being far away from my family and friends.

In general, I imagine I’m not the only one who sometimes struggles in big busy cities 🙂

***

Bonus: Compare and Contrast

Comparing and contrasting a couple of songs can be a very powerful exercise.

You could do it with 2 songs you really like, identify what they have in common. Maybe learn a thing or two about how they differ and why that doesn’t matter to you.

Or you could compare and contrast song #1 that you really like with song #2 that makes you indifferent or want to run away!

In that case, you’d be focusing more on how they are different but it’d also be interesting to note how they are similar and why that’s not enough for you to like song #2.  

Here’s a template you could use.

I’ve highlighted in green what these songs have in common.

Surprises:

  • the folk song is at a similar tempo as the dancefloor track
  • saxophone at the end of the dancefloor track

No surprises:

  • the folk song is longer than its counterparts and has no additional instrumentation
  • there is very little variation in chord sequences in all three tracks
  • the pop/rock and dancefloor songs use padding and percussions to keep the audience interested
  • the pop/rock and dancefloor songs are in a major key while the folk song is in a minor key
  • the dancefloor song includes a breakdown near the middle of the track
  • the pop/song is easy to remember and sing

The bottom line: 

The three songs selected engage with the audience in different ways:

  • the folk song makes us want to listen;
  • the pop/rock song makes us want to sing; and
  • the electronic song makes us want to dance.

They’re all pretty cool in their own way.

***

So what do you say?

Pretty straightforward, right?

If you start doing this every now and then, you’ll learn and learn and grow as a musician.

The key is to keep it simple!

Don’t worry if you don’t know the “appropriate” musical terms for now. Just go with it. You’ll learn plenty along the way.

 

So here’s my challenge to you…

 

I want you to set aside 30 minutes this week to learn from the best.

Right now, pick a couple of songs you’ll be analyzing this week and email me about it at joyce@creativeandproductive.com

Let me know:

when you’re going to do it; and

which 2 songs you’ve chosen.

You’ve done that?

If you haven’t, you’ve just spend a lot of time procrastinating for nothing reading this post 😉

At least try to procrastinate productively :p

Ok, have you emailed me at joyce@creativeandproductive.com with the 2 songs you’ll be studying?

If you haven’t, don’t hesitate to email me why not! 😉

If you have, great!

Now give yourself a high-five and book that time in your calendar so you don’t forget!