Critical Listening 101

How to Analyze a Song

In his video How to Analyze Movies, YouTube personality Patrick Willems explains that all art analysis consists of observing the piece and asking the question: "Why did they do it that way?" If you've ever listened to your favorite song and wondered why your heart raced during the chorus or why you get goosebumps every time you hear a particular chord, you have taken your first steps to analyze a song through critical listening.

Analyzing a song is the process of chipping away at the questions:

  1. "What makes this song work?"

  2. "Why did the artist do it that way?"

But why bother analyzing songs? Isn't it enough to listen to music and enjoy it as an aesthetic experience? The answer to the second question is, "of course." But if we want to develop a deeper relationship with music, analyzing songs will allow us to discover new things each time we listen. If we write songs, a musical analysis will enable us to take the things we love about a song and make them our own.

The good news is that learning how to analyze music has never been easier. The advent of recording technology means that this activity isn't limited to those capable of reading music. Analysis of a musical score limits discussion to the compositional aspects of a piece. Audio recordings allow the listener to delve into the composition of a piece and a particular performance. Popular songs now often feature lyrics, which add another layer of meaning to a song. And because it is so ubiquitous, we can even analyze the techniques involved in producing any musical recording.

Modern songwriters and musicians wear more hats than ever nowadays. Many of us are composers, lyricists, and bedroom producers. These three skills are at the heart of songwriting, so we should view them as our principal lenses for analysis. Because it's easy to consider each of these disciplines as an island, I'd like to propose a language that describes their shared aspects. In my article about Victor Wooten's The Music Lesson, I discussed his 10 elements of music.

  1. Notes

  2. Articulation

  3. Technique

  4. Feel

  5. Dynamics

  6. Rhythm

  7. Tone

  8. Phrasing

  9. Space

  10. Listening

Where appropriate, I'll use these terms in bold italics to illustrate how we can consider musical concepts across these three disciplines. By learning to recognize these elements in music, lyrics, and recording, we can think more broadly about how we approach songwriting.

Compositional and Performance Analysis

Music is ultimately physical. Analyzing a song can proceed in whatever order you choose. Still, your first physical connection to the music will likely be the rhythm. Does the song make you want to tap your foot? Sway? Observe your reactions as you feel the music. How you connect to the rhythm will guide you in discovering the song's foundation. Listen for the song's tempo, time signature, and rhythmic motifs (recurring rhythms). Tap out the rhythms that connect you to the piece's groove. Rhythm is the element that binds all the voices or instruments in a song. Understanding it will allow you to explore how those voices relate to each other.

After you explore rhythm, take an inventory of all the instruments you hear in a piece. This is the orchestration of a piece. How many instruments do you hear? Do all of them play at all times? These questions will lead you to consider dynamics, tone, and articulation. Take note of which instruments are playing loudly or softly and when. Imagine the instruments as though they were paints on a canvas. What colors are most predominant? What textures are present? Listen to the way that individual notes are played. An instrumentalist can attack notes with the same variety that a pencil artist can approach drawing a point. As you connect to each voice in the piece, you will hear how notes coalesce into phrases.

Instruments make statements through phrasing and space. Imagine an artist drawing a curve. The curve can be long and flowing or faint and jagged. Melodies are no different. Do the melodies zig-zag all over the place? Or are they smooth and easy to sing? Ask yourself how the instruments take space or create space. Observe how space and phrasing give way to form. As melodic ideas are repeated and punctuated by space, they form larger parts. How do the larger parts combine to give the song form? Label these parts to create a road map of the song. A map will allow you to break the song into manageable pieces that you can learn to sing or play on your instrument.

Now that you understand the rhythm, have an inventory of the instruments, and hold a road map of the song, you're ready to start analyzing the melody and harmony (notes). Your comprehensive groundwork will allow you to hear things more quickly because the whole song isn't hitting you at once. Learning the main melody of the song's principal parts will be the best way to understand its essence and establish the key or tonal center. Once you've got the melody, listen to how the bass line interacts with it. A good goal is to be able to sing or play both of these melodies without accompaniment. Harmony is what fills the gap between the melody and the bass. Understanding the melody and bass line will allow you to infer a song's chords. As you piece together how the chords move, you'll develop a fuller comprehension of the song's structure and form. Reserve the right to change your mind about any conclusions you come to. As you learn more about your instrument and music theory, your understanding of the song's logic may change, which is okay.

Lyrical Analysis

Lyrical analysis is effectively the study of prosody. Prosody is the use of rhythm and sound in a poetic text. In songwriting, prosody also includes various uses of tone painting. For instance, in the song Rock Lobster, Fred Schneider shouts the word "down" while the music descends through a chromatic scale. It's helpful to think of prosody as a form of listening. If the words and the music were members of a band, prosody would be how the two listen to and support each other. When prosody works well, the lyrics have a clear meaning and feel. Discerning how prosody shows up in a song means considering elements like the rhythm or meter, arrangement of words and phonemes, and the broader arrangement of sections to create forms.

You're absolutely right if you guessed that rhythm would be a good starting point for analysis. Here we should ask, "how do the lyrics reflect or complement the rhythm of the song?" In all likelihood, the lyrics are being sung to the main melody of the song, so the two should have very similar rhythmic patterns. Because lyric writing has its roots in poetry, you can determine whether the text is set to a standard poetic meter or if it is in free-verse that reflects the patterns of everyday speech. Often, when a singer's melody is highly improvised, it will tend to have more of a free-verse feel. A more stylized composed lyric may use poetic forms to adhere closely to a prewritten melody.

Lyrical phrases consist of words that may carry their own dynamic content. For instance, The word "loud" may be strategically used in a loud section of the song. Beyond that, words are composed of phonemes. Phonemes have tonal effects and can be articulated in many ways. Consonants in words can be approached softly or with emphasis. Generally, consonant-heavy lines will dictate shorter note lengths per syllable.

In contrast, lines with more vowels allow a performer to hold a single syllable over several notes. Vowel sounds may be arranged within a line to achieve the effect of gradually easing into open vowel sounds or slowly closing down to eliminate them. Vowel sounds can also be used to create internal rhymes that establish tension. End rhyme allows one line to flow quickly into the next. As you pick up on how these strategies are used, you can start to group lyrics into phrases that create sections.

Once you can tell which lines constitute an individual phrase, you can start to arrange them into stanzas. If the phrases use end rhyme, this is easier because the lines of a stanza are usually denoted by a rhyming syllable. However, some musicians seldom use end rhyme. Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys typically reserves rhymes for choruses, preferring to write verses that sound more like character dialogue. An artist like Rakim will use internal rhyme within phrases to push and pull the timing of the line. Determining how the lyrics use rhyme will help you decipher the structure and form of a song. You can then start peeling back layers of the text to see how it builds on the musical landscape.

Listening to Song Production

Since the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the studio has been seen as an instrument unto itself. The recording process is now as integral to music as the compositional and lyrical aspects. We can listen for space, tone, technique, and feel when we analyze a recording. As the art of music production develops, it becomes more important to listen to how engineering decisions reinforce a song's composition or prosody. Before recording technology, all music had to be heard in a physical space with a performer. Therefore, all recordings are simulations of a space, making space a great place to start your analysis.

All recordings can convey space in several ways. Volume is the primary method an engineer has of creating space. As you listen to the track, note the volume of the instruments and how they sit in a mix. Compression allows an engineer to strategically tame the dynamic range of an instrument. If you hear compression on an instrument, ask yourself whether that instrument is somehow acting as an anchor to the others. A mix can be dense and full or sparse and intimate. How does the density of the mix work with the meaning of the song?

The advent of Stereophonic sound, and now Dolby Atmos, allows an engineer to emulate the placement of instruments in a room to create a perspective. This means that the listener could be intended to experience any song from the audience's point of view, the drummer's, or as someone standing in the middle of the band. Note how things are panned to the left or right channels, and try to imagine which perspective you are being encouraged to take. Panning can also be used as a special effect, so it's worth noticing if the stereo image is realistic or artificial.

Reverb emulates the natural echo of any space and allows the engineer to create an environment for the instruments to share. This environment can emulate the sound of a band in a room, club, or concert hall. Organic reverb will tend to be subtle, while more artificial reverbs are used to achieve specific effects. Some genres use reverb to create washy dream-like atmospheres. Think of space as the element that gives a recording depth. The texture of the surface is provided by tonal balance.

Texture is achieved by managing the song's orchestration and balance of frequencies within a recording. Earlier, we talked about density in the context of space; texture is where density and orchestration intersect. For instance, a Wall of Sound approach to texture would fill every space with something for the listener to grab onto. These dense mixes have a very thick texture, whereas Nick Drake's Pink Moon features a very sparse arrangement that yields a gentle or soft texture.

Tonal balance refers to how an engineer uses equalization technology to adjust the volumes of specific frequencies in the spectrum. How frequencies are emphasized can produce a warmer or cooler feel. A song like Turn to Stone by ELO has a warm feel because much of its content is in the middle frequencies. Lost Wisdom by Burzum, on the other hand, emphasizes the higher frequencies giving it a cold feeling that reflects the mood of the music. As you analyze a recording, pay close attention to how frequencies are emphasized in a mix to see how the tone of a recording augments the meaning of the words or musical phrases.

As recording technology improves, it allows musicians to achieve things that were hitherto impossible in live performance. Because the studio is now treated as an instrument, techniques that allow the artist to manipulate sound are exploited for their musical effects. Special effects like delay, chorus, double tracking, and others allow artists to expand their tonal palette to influence composition and prosody. As you analyze a recording, ask yourself how the artist uses these effects. What kind of feel is the artist cultivating through the use of special effects?

Musical analysis is a process that occurs over many sessions of listening to the songs that you love. If this introduction felt expansive or overwhelming, know that you are always in charge of how exhaustive you want to be in a listening session. Take time and focus on one element each time you listen to a song. Save composer listening for when you're trying to get inspiration for new parts or learn new tunes. Dive into lyrical analysis when you're working on your own lyrics. Listen like a producer when you're recording and polishing your ideas for a release. There is no wrong way to apply these filters; these are only some of the ways to listen to and analyze a song. No matter how you apply these strategies, the benefits are clear. The more you practice this type of critical listening, the quicker you will get at noticing details in a song. You'll be able to implement those insights in your own compositions. Beyond that, you'll also be able to forge a deeper connection with your favorite music and share your insights with others.