In just about every other areas of music instruction, they encourage students to analyze, learn and steal from the greats. Guitar students start out by playing along to their heros. Singers sing along. Classical music students analyze Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and likes and learn what stylistic elements identify their compositions as their works. Rightfully, this is a tricky topic with songwriters, because we’re so afraid of plagiarism. Even if you don’t end up in court, being accused of plagiarism, being a copycat, is a major insult.
And I’m not advocating that plagiarism is acceptable — it’s not. But learning from the greats is still the most effective way to learn a craft. What you do is instead of copying bits of music — though that’s where everyone must start — you analyze songs and learn the system that makes the great songs great. And this also extends to the art of record producing — great arrangers, engineers and producers are constantly analyzing what they hear in recordings. Instrumentation, mix, types of reverb used — all that information is available to those who know how to listen.
Once you start analyzing, you’ll discover that each piece of music/recording contains an amazing amount of information. It’s packed full of techiniques that you can employ into your own songwriting and production. Below let me identify what you can glean from a recording, so that you can start developing the skill of listening critically. Songwriting Analysis Harmony/chords: What chords are used? Do they stay in the key? How are they voiced? How often do they change? Melody: How does it fit together with chords? Does it go up, down or remain static?
If sung, how does it work with words? Structure: Does it follow the standard format, or does it deviate somewhere? Do the verses repeat the same melody, or is the singer improvising each verse? Does it use call and response or other standard structures? Lyrics: How does the song start? Is there a story? How does the topic/mood fit with the music? What’s the rhyming scheme? Where are the punchlines? What function does each line/stanza serve? Arrangement Analysis Basis: Is the song based on a specific instrument, such as guitar or piano?
Does that instrument do anything particular to that instrument which forms the core of the song’s identity? For example, strumming is a specialty of guitar-like stringed instruments. If you play the song on a piano, it will not have the same effect. Rhythm: What are the drums doing? Which beats do the bass drum and snare emphasize? Is it busy or sparse? Does it propel the groove or slow it down? Bass: Which instrument is playing the bass role, if any? How does the bass support the harmony or the groove? How does it play with the bass drum? Does it simply anchor the song or play more prominent role?
Riff: How does it fit with the chords/harmony of the song? Does it stay the same or is there any variations? Will the song still work without the riff? Texture: Are there any instruments in the background simply filling the space with chord tones, or providing some subtle rhythmic layering? What sort of instruments/voices/tones/sounds are used for texture? Instrumentation: What are all the instruments used in this song? What functions/roles does each of them serve? Leads/Counter-Melody: How do they interact with the riff, chords and melody?
When in the song do they come in, and what range do they occupy (high/low)? Dynamics/Contrast: Are there softer and louder parts of the songs? How does it transition from one section to the next? Performance Analysis Execution: Are all parts perfectly tight, or do they leave some looseness/imperfections? What effects do the execution give to the song (slick, casual, mechanical, etc. )? Beats: Is everything perfect on the beat, or are any of them ahead/behind? Intonation: Is everything perfectly on pitch, or are there some “sour” notes left in?
Enunciation: Can you understand every word the singer sings, or it is more of a blur? How does this affect the impression of the song? What type of “character” is singing this song? Production Analysis Environment: If you are to imagine that you’re listening to a band play this recording live, what sort of room/environment can you picture? Can you imagine any room at all? Placement: Where are the instruments? Describe not just left and right, but also depth — which instrument sounds close to you, and which ones sound like they’re coming from farther away?
Doubling: Are any of the melodies doubled or harmonized? If so, are they actually played twice, or is it doubled using some kind of effect (really short echo, for example)? Effects: Do you hear any effects like echos, distortion, lo-fi tones, rotary-speaker simulation, and so on? How do they affect the impression of the song? Balance: Can you hear everything clearly? Which parts/voices are the loud and soft? How does the balance change over the course of the song? Date: Does the recording sound modern/current, futuristic, or classic/vintage? Why?