by Blair Packham, SongStudio Program Director
It’s easy to love certain songs, but not always easy to understand why you love them. For me, knowing why is essential to my songwriting process. I want to know what helps my songs communicate better, so I try to see what “works” on me as a listener. I also check on really popular songs occasionally—songs that I don’t usually pay much attention to, I confess—to see why they “work” on millions of other people.
I call this “developing your aesthetic;” in other words, learning to recognize and develop your own taste in music.
The way to start is through what I call critical listening (although you could just as easily call it analytical or conscious listening).
Sounds kind of dull, doesn’t it? But it’s not—it’s fun, and useful.
Try this: listen to your favourite songs, making sure to pay attention to your own feelings, and how they coincide with what’s happening in the song. Try to identify the sections of the song (verse, chorus, bridge, and so on) and what’s happening in each section. Are the lyrics speaking to your heart? Is it a particular phrase that’s hitting hard, or just what’s implied? What is it that’s happening with the harmonic movement, the melody, the instrumentation, the dynamics that causes you to feel a particular way?
Paying attention like this involves using both your gut and your brain, and it takes a bit of practice to tell them apart. It can be easy to talk yourself in or out of liking something. Your friends like a particular song, or the media tells you it’s cool, or whatever—you feel you should like it. But maybe you actually don’t. And that’s okay. Just try to figure out why—knowing why will help your own writing be truer to who you are.
Why does the end of that song lift me up? Oh, it’s a key change, going up a tone! Why do I feel sad in the bridge of the song? Because the chords are minor and the lyrical point-of-view suddenly changes from third-person to the first-person! Why is the intro so nakedly powerful? Because it starts with the vocal melody, unaccompanied! That sing-song chorus near the end makes me feel empowered because…it’s a bunch of people singing anthemic words together over a big beat! (These are just simple examples; your own experience of these things might be much different than mine. That key change upwards at the end of the song, for example, might be seen by many people as cheesy or cliché. Who cares: what matters is what you feel!)
Whatever the actual technique used by the songwriter (and sometimes the producer/arranger), the important part is what you feel about it.
(Some people are afraid of getting too deep into this process, perhaps believing that they’ll spoil the magic in these songs. And the truth is, it just might, but only for a while. For some, it’s easy to become over-analytical, to over-think things, if that’s your tendency. But speaking from personal experience, it’s very possible to emerge from “the other side.” Even with my analytical approach, I love music more than ever these days!)
So much of navigating songcraft—like so much of life, really—is a matter of pattern recognition. Patterns play a huge role in the making of songs, and these patterns are soon revealed in rhyme schemes and matching line lengths and so on. But a larger pattern will be revealed when you examine lots of songs you like. You’ll start to notice the facets of songs that you have—unconsciously, so far—admired.
You may discover that you like specific lyrical subject matter, similar chord changes, for example, or structural elements that affect the way a song is heard.1
You might fall in love with the way the singer delivers a line, or the sound of the snare drum, or the reverb soaking the guitar riff. But these aren’t elements of songwriting, per se. Separating these production/arrangement/performance aspects from actual songwriting is essential to do. Those other things are undeniably important—otherwise, why would we care who sang a song, or why would we need great producers, players, engineers, and so on). But they’re not songwriting, which is the act of creating new words and melodies.
Developing your own aesthetic through critical listening is, I think, essential to discovering your own “voice” as a creator. I don’t just mean your singing voice, but mainly the identifiable stamp that you as a songwriter put on everything you write, just by the way you write it.
You don’t have to just listen, either. Learning how to play other people’s songs, getting inside them, learning the chords and the melodies and the words, can be an excellent way to see how great songs work. So many successful songwriters2 were in cover bands before they began writing their own stuff, and it’s pretty arguable that they learned their craft by imitation.
Try listening critically to some of your favourite songs. I’ll bet you’ll learn valuable stuff about your own taste, your creative process and you can put that insight to work in creating songs that are more “you,” and more reliably “good.”
Music is a gift, and songwriting is a journey. You can choose to approach it gingerly, picking at the surface, or you can dive right in, digging deep. Whatever way you choose is valid, as long as you enjoy the process and hopefully, make other human beings feel something from your music.
Because that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
1 Early on, I discovered I was really drawn to the chord change that moves from the tonic to the supertonic (“the I to the major II chord”). Not only The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” but also Joe South’s “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” or Odds “Someone Who’s Cool,” and “Eat My Brain,” and many more. Funny, I don’t know why I like this change, only that I do. Of course, I have incorporated that chord change into a few of my songs over the years. I also like surprising section changes, like the one-line pre-chorus in Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” The listener expects to hear a two-line or fourline pre-chorus, but the shorter section forces forward movement, and the verses seem to tumble into the chorus.
2 The Beatles were a cover band that eventually spawned arguably the greatest songwriters of the 20th century.. Almost half the songs on their first two albums were covers they used to perform in their live show. And you can bet Lennon and McCartney (and George Harrison) learned a lot from playing those rock ‘n’ roll/ R&B hits night after night.