Writing without technique is like taking a road trip without a map. We’ll blow a whole tank of gas only to end up with no idea where we are. The main reason I didn’t use technique as a beginning writer is that I lacked the language to define and express what the techniques are. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This is why critics often ask “Can songwriting be taught?” Certainly it can. Like any art, it is not the techniques that define the art, but rather how we choose to use those techniques as we dip into our wells of inspiration. One of the most important techniques you can learn as a songwriter is critical listening. So how do we learn to do this? We start by breaking the different components of a song into four large moving parts: Melody, Chords, Lyric, and Groove.
When we apply critical listening to each part separately, we can notice its shapes and rhythms, and see patterns in its content. Here we’ll break down and define each of these musical components and discuss how to listen and employ them to improve songwriting. To help us do this, select a song of your choice and let’s get started.
We are going to dive into several aspects of melody as it applies to critical listening, including motif; rhythm and pitch; chords; and melodic rhythm.
Memorable melodies contain a motif—you know, that string of notes that repeat over and over again throughout the verse or chorus, and seem to belong to only that song. We know a song’s melody by its motifs. The chorus and verse may have similar or contrasting motifs, and the prechorus and bridge yet another motif.
A great motif is a powerful combination of pitches and rhythms that define the song. Highly commercial writers, like Mozart or the Stones, often employ short motifs repeating frequently throughout a song section. Less commercial or “art-driven” writers may lengthen the motifs, use repetition more sparingly, or vary the motifs more drastically. Of course, once we vary the motif so much that it’s unrecognizable, our melodies begin to sound haphazard. All memorable music builds on at least one musical motif.
Rhythm and Pitch
Melody is rhythm plus pitch. That’s it. When we sing a note in a melody, we need to know what pitch to sing, and where and how long to sing it. So within the larger part of melody, we can develop a language to describe what a melody is and does by looking at the shapes created by the pitches and the rhythms.
Let’s start with pitch. The way we learn any craft is to study the work of those whose craft we admire. Then, as we observe tools in their work, we try our hand at applying those tools within the scope of our own inspiration. Pick a song you like and listen to the first two lyric lines of a verse or chorus. Pause and sing the melodic motif.
Now, choose one of the following characteristics from the list below that defines the melodic motif you just sang:
- Are the pitches clustered (i.e. close together on the scale)?
- Are some pitches separated by intervals (i.e. jumping up or down the scale)?
- Do the pitches basically ascend or descend?
- Does the motif feel long (i.e. much more than a measure)? Or short (i.e. less than a measure)?
- Are the pitches in the low, middle, or high area of the vocalist’s range?
You’re developing a language now to describe what you’re hearing. Do this 10 times with 10 different songs and you’ll start to notice you’ve got a better handle on melody, know what shapes you like best, and see more clearly your options when it comes to writing melodies for your own songs.
Melody and Chords
We can better understand how melody interacts with the chords underneath by asking these questions:
- Are the pitches also notes that define the chord underneath? Or, does the melody sometimes feel unresolved and dissonant at times? Trust your senses here and describe the spirit without getting lost in detail.
- Do the pitches remain static while the chords move around, or the other way around?
- Do the pitches move parallel with the chords (i.e. both basically ascend or basically descend the scale)? Or, do the pitches tend to move contrary to the bass movement?
The more you consider each characteristic, the more familiar they will seem. One of the more exciting benefits of learning this language is that we can describe with confidence what makes our writing style ours, and what characteristics we don’t use but would like to in the future to grow our style.
Let’s move over to rhythm now. Listen to the same two lines of your selected song. Below are some questions that will help you define the melody’s rhythm:
- Are the notes basically short or long?
- Does the motif basically begin before the downbeat of 1, on the downbeat of 1, or after the downbeat of 1?
- Is there rest space between some of the notes?
- Are the notes basically straight, on the down or upbeats, or are they syncopated?
And again, we can look at how the rhythm of the melody interacts with the chords beneath:
- How many times do you hear the melodic motif repeating over one cycle through the chord progression?
- Is the groove more intricate while the melody is more spacious, or the other way around?
- Do the melody and groove take turns, (i.e. create a feeling of call and response)?
Listen for these melodic characteristics in each section of the song. Notice how different sections utilize different characteristics to achieve contrast. Then, try using the same contrasting characteristics between two sections of your next original song.
Tip: When developing a critical listening language of melody, it can help to keep the chord progression simple and repetitive throughout the verse and chorus. This way you can hear how the melody is responsible for all the contrast between sections instead of a new chord or chord progression creating the contrast.
Most songwriters are on the lookout for interesting chord progressions. We hear other songs using them, but somehow when we try to use them ourselves they can sound out of character, or just a knock-off of the original. So we go back to our old progressions.
Instead of focusing on what chord to play, I want to look at a different characteristic: frequency. Very simply, how often do the chords change?
Take out your song again and listen to the verse. Don’t worry about naming the chords themselves, but rather count how many beats each chords lasts. Then, count how many measures make up the whole chord progression.
- How many beats does each chord last?
- How many measures make up the chord progression?
Now listen to a contrasting section in the song—maybe a prechorus, chorus, or bridge. Ask yourself the same questions:
- How many beats does each chord last?
- How many measures make up the chord progression?
Notice a difference? If you do, then you’ve just identified one of the most useful and underrated techniques of writing chord progressions for songs. If not, then it’s possible the melody is doing all the work of creating two distinct sections. Pick another song to try out your critical listening skills regarding chord frequency.
Outside of the frequency of our chord changes, we can adopt a simple language to describe the chords themselves. To do this we need a little bit of theory, or some good ears. Preferably both.
Identifying Borrowed Chords
When I work with beginning songwriters, we spend a fair bit of time learning to trust our instincts. Many people can hear the difference between a major and a minor chord without any instruction at all. Major chords have a bright, happy sound, while minor chords emit a darker, unsettled, or sad feeling. Adding a fourth tone to a triad—such as a major 7th or a dominant 7th—tends to shoot holes in the beginning songwriter’s confidence. Again, don’t get flustered. Feel the spirit of the chord. Does it feel calm, light, dreamy? Or bold, edgy, and coarse?
Once you trust your feelings, you can liven up your basic chord progressions with a technique based on your ability to hear the difference between major and minor chords.
Apply critical listening again to the song you are analyzing. If you can, try to hear the root of the scale or sing the scale the chords are built from. Don’t worry: simply sing different pitches that agree with the chord tones you are hearing. Put them together and you’ve got the scale. Most chords will be diatonic to the scale, which means they’re built from notes of the scale. But once in a while you’ll hear a chord that suddenly slaps you in the face—drawing attention to itself like it wasn’t cut from the same sonic fabric. This is called a borrowed chord.
It is borrowed because for just a moment, we’re taking it from another scale to use in our scale. Sound confusing? The more you practice hearing these chordal moments in songs, the more you’ll notice the same borrowed chords being used over and over again. There’s a good reason for that which lies in some pretty exciting theory knowledge, but we’ll get to that another time.
Practice Hearing Borrowed Chords
As you listen to songs you admire, you’ll notice more and more how the bulk of the chords are diatonic. They all belong to the same scale. You’ll trust your ears when you come across a chord that doesn’t seem to belong. Then, you’ll develop your own technique with borrowed chords. To practice learning this language, try the following steps:
- Write that same old chord progression you always write with all diatonic chords.
- Swap out one of the major chords for its minor, or one of the minor chords for its major. For example, turn a C minor into a C major.
- Play the chord progression through a few times, acclimating to the new sound and possible tension or spotlight you’ve created. Experiment with writing a short, repetitive melodic motif over the top.
Tip: Notice how songs use borrowed chords sparingly, and in a position to highlight a significant lyrical moment. Too many different borrowed chords can stall the forward movement of the song, completely hijack the spotlight, or make the listener lose sight of the key. Keep listening to how and when your favorite songs use borrowed chords and use that language as your guide.
The chords we choose can, of course, establish a unique sound for our song. But many songs rely on the exact same chord progressions. So what other large moving part of a song is at play to create a memorable song? Groove. It refers to the manner in which the chords are expressed and conveys emotion. It supports or defines the emotional intent of the lyric.
Play the first 10 seconds of your song. What emotion do you believe it is setting you up to feel? Is it sad or bubbly, vengeful or lighthearted, dark and complex, or carefree and funky? Now ask yourself, are these the only chords that could convey that emotion, or is something else causing that emotion to come through? More than likely, it’s the groove, not the chords alone.
Try drumming the groove on your lap with your hands. Really feel it. Now listen to each instrument. In which instrument do you feel the groove expressed the strongest? Drum along with that instrument.
Dancing or drumming along with a new song every day is a wonderful way to develop critical listening skills with respect to groove. It’s also a lot of fun.
The final large moving part in a song is the lyric. When we are critical listening to learn the language of songwriting, lyrics can be a rich and demanding element. Depending on the style of music you are listening to, lyric content may play a significant or somewhat minimal role.
Listen to the first verse again of your song. What role does the lyric play?
Now listen again for form and structure. One of the primary ways a song lyric differs from poetry is in how a song repeats a central idea—the chorus. The chorus draws the listener towards the main message and title, set often as the first line of the chorus, the last line, or both. Sometimes the chorus is simply the title repeated over and over.
After you’ve listened for the chorus and title positions, take a listen to the verses. Their job is to set up the chorus message. Take a moment to summarize in just a few of your own words how the first verse prepares us for the chorus message. Now what about other verses? In what way do they differ from the first verse?
Finally, notice the point of view. Is the singer writing from “I,” perhaps expressing a personal story or message from their own experience? Or, is the singer addressing the audience directly with a universal “you”? Or maybe the singer is the narrator, telling the story from a third-person point of view? Whatever the point of view, consider how that choice is consistent with that artist’s image and brand.
We can listen to music for years without developing good critical listening skills. Developing an awareness of craft means that we peer beyond what we are accustomed to writing. Writers do this naturally when they collaborate, each affecting the construction of the song with their unique tendencies. Seeing how another writer works to solve melody, lyric, chord, and groove problems expands our style and our comfort zone. Expanding our comfort zone is never easy, but it is always worth it.