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?

STUDY THE BEST

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.