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Want to learn from the greatest songwriters of all time?

Several years ago, shortly after I started writing pop songs, I was reading through a book of lyrics and was shocked to realize that most of my songs had three times as many words as any of the hit songs in the collection.

Without realizing it, I was ignoring songwriting best practices and complicating my songwriting process. I made it harder to write and harder to perform my own songs. I wasn’t putting my own songs into context with other, better songs that were already out there.

Here’s How to Do It…

Songwriters can borrow an interesting hack used by mixing engineers.

Mixers bring a Reference Track, a finished song into a mixing project in progress. The finished song goes into it’s own track within the project in the D.A.W. and is muted. (D.A.W. = Digital Audio Workstation, the software used to mix all the vocal and instrumental tracks into a finished song) With a few clicks, the mixer can listen to and compare their project in progress with the reference track.

The reference track might be chosen for it’s infectious groove or some other tiny strand of musical DNA that they’re trying to capture in their own project. The reference track is an objective standard on any speakers or headphones. It could be for:

  • Well balanced lead and background vocals
  • The sound of a particular instrument like the sound of the lead guitar or bass
  • The balance between several instruments like the entire drum kit or the bass drum and the electric bass, or
  • The overall sound and vibe of the entire song.

Mixers get better and faster results when they can directly compare elements of their work to a superior quality, finished recording.

Songwriting
Reference Tracks:

I can hear you asking: “How would this work for a songwriter?” Keep reading…

Songwriting Reference Tracks-How to Learn From Songs You Love

Why Reference Tracks Work

As a songwriter, choose songs you love and actively listen. Make written notes and analyze songs. Find out how well you really know these songs. Then borrow and transform the best ideas for your songs.

Every songwriter does this subconsciously, we’ve listened to music for our whole lives and learned to play songs written by others as we learn to sing and/or play instruments. The songs we know inform our choices as we write our own songs.

Do it deliberately… intentionally take control of your songwriting!

Don’t ask the internet… figure it out by listening to songs you love. Ask yourself why they sound so great. Then use your creativity to blend the best ideas into your own songs.

If you’re still arguing with yourself about reference tracks stifling your creativity… here’s an interesting quote attributed to many people:

Good artists copy, great artists steal!

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal... Pablo Picass, T.S. Elliot. Igor Stanvinsky, WIlliam Faulkner, W.H. Davenport Adams

What Songs Should I Use for A Reference Track?

Ask yourself what songs you want your songs to sound like?

  • Any song you love
  • Any song you wish you had written.
  • Any song that echoes in your head the next day

Write down what you love about each reference track. Be specific, so you know what to start investigating first….

You Can Use Reference Tracks To:

  • Explore trends or best practices in a style/genre
  • Check you own songs against a reference
  • Find ways to write better songs and improve your songs
  • Write your own songs, use this like a checklist

Should I Go Wide Or Deep?

Wide = one question but many songs. This is best when you’re looking for songwriting patterns or studying a genre or style of music.

Deep = one song but ask many of the questions below. Use this technique for a detailed exploration of a particular song.

What You Can Learn From Reference Tracks

Here are some ideas of what you can study, learn, steal and adapt for your own songs. This list is a starting point, add you own ideas to each section… what do you need to learn more about?

Start With:

Why do I want to listen to that song again and again?

What’s the best part of this song?

What do I still remember after I’ve listened?

Then examine elements of the song more closely…

Lyrics

What lyric lines do you remember afterwards?
and:

  • What are the lyric hooks in the song?
  • What is the first line of the song? How does it hook you?
  • Song Ideas and Song Themes – What is the song really about?
  • Song Title Ideas – What makes a good title? How long should my title be?
  • Mood or tone of the lyrics – What emotions are evoked by the lyrics? How did the songwriter do it?
  • What emotions are triggered by the lyrics?
  • What’s the emotional journey in the song?
  • Do the characters develop during the song? Is there a transformation for them, are they different afterwards.
  • What is the story / plot in the song?
  • Story pacing – how does the story develops during the song, through each song section
  • Point of View, P.O.V. who is singing, what perspective is the songwriter using
  • What keywords & synonyms are used in the lyrics? How do they connect to the song title or theme?

Find the sections of the song: verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge…

  • What are the main lyric ideas in each section?

Figurative Language

Figurative language = wording you have to figure out, as opposed to literal language which means exactly what is said.

Are there examples of:

  • Symbolism – something that represents another thing
  • Metaphor – a connection between two things that aren’t normally associated
  • Simile – a metaphor that uses “like” or “as”
  • Allusion – a reference to another work of art or cultural figure or cultural icon
  • Hyperbole – deliberate exaggeration

What interesting turns of phrase are used in the lyrics (especially adapted or changed clichés)?

Imagery

  • What imagery is used?
  • Which senses are invoked (sight, sound, sensations, smell, taste)?
  • What imagery can you create from these ideas? How could you do it differently?

Lyric Structure

How do you create structure with the lyrics?

  • What is the rhyme scheme in each section?
  • How many lines in each section?
  • How long is each line?
  • Number of syllables per line?
  • What are the accent patterns in the lyrics (the rhythms of lyrics) and how do they change within a song section / between song sections?
  • Word Count / Line Count

How Do I Write a Song Section

How do the lyric phrases and harmonic phrase structure complement or contrast with each other?

  • Repetition – How is repetition used to build patterns in song sections?
  • In the Chorus? Within a verse? Between verses? Within other sections?
  • Rhyme words – Why are the rhymes interesting? Are the rhymes predictable or unique?
  • What types of rhyme are used? Perfect and Imperfect/Slant rhymes?
  • Rhyme schemes – What are the rhyme schemes in each section?
  • Are they basic AABB, ABAB, XAXA or more complex?
  • How are the rhyme schemes different in each section?
  • Do the rhyme schemes, lyric phrases, musical phrase structure and chord progressions complement or contrast with each other?
  • How many bars are each section (all the same or different, which are longer or shorter)?
  • Are there musical transitions between sections?
  • Are there modulations / change of key?

For more about song sections: Parts of a Popular Song

Song Sections, Parts of a Song, Parts of a Popular Song

How Do I Write a Chorus?

  • Where is the title in the chorus?
  • How is the chorus constructed? What is the chorus structure?
  • The Rhyme scheme, Lyric Phrases, Chord Progression
  • What is the rhyme scheme?
  • What other lyrics are in the chorus besides the title?
  • How are chorus lyrics different from lyrics in other sections?

From the Written Page to the Voice

What Happens When Written Lyrics Are Sung

Lyricists and Writing Lyrics First… Reading a lyric on a page is different than hearing a vocalist sing it. Time and rhythms feel different when performing / listening to it.

  • How is the lyric I write going to be sung?
  • Lyric Melody – how does the melody complement or contrast with the lyrics?

Also:

  • How many syllables per bar?
  • How many syllables per line?
  • How many seconds does each line last?
  • How do the number of syllables changes from line to line in a section?
  • How they are the same/different in each section, between verses?

Note: Don’t count syllables in your lines and think you have it covered… it’s only a guide. The rhythms and accent patterns in the lines are more important to the melody than the number of syllables… it’s the patterns not the amount that’s most important!

Hooks

Hooks or earworms get stuck in your head and keep the song in your mind long after you listen to it.

Hooks can be:

  • lyric fragments
  • melodic fragments
  • melodic motifs…
  • riffs
  • grooves

A hook can also be a combination of these… perhaps a lyric fragment with a melodic idea and a strong rhythm like you would write for the title lyrics in the chorus.

  • What are the hooks?
  • Why are they so cool?
  • What can you borrow from the hooks?
  • How do the different hooks fit together (where are they and how are they similar in a song)
  • What are the hooks in each section? Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Bridge?
  • Which hooks stick in your head the longest? Why?

What can you learn from the hooks in the song?

Contrast

One of the keys to writing strong songs is using contrast between song sections.

  • What are the things that provide contrast between each song section?
  • Lyrics – topic, what aspects are different in each section, rhythms, number of syllables, etc.?
  • Melody – range, direction/contour, speed of notes, rhythms?
  • Chord Progressions – chords, speed of chord change, how many chords, length of each chord progression?
  • Arrangement – how do the notes of each instrument change in each section and on repetition of each section?

Song Structure

  • What is the order of song sections? I, V, PC, C, B (Introduction, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Bridge)
  • How many verses?
  • Is there a Pre-Chorus, a Bridge?
  • After the bridge is there a pre-chorus?
  • How many times is the chorus repeated at the end?
  • How many times is the chorus repeated in the whole song?

Melody

What are the melody hooks?

What parts do you singalong to?

How are each of these the same or different in each song section?

  • Range of melody
  • Register
  • Type of singing voice: chest / mix / head voice
  • Melody Rhythms, how fast, which rhythmic patterns are used?
  • Melody notes, which scale notes, which chord tones?
  • Direction of the melody, melodic curves?
  • Changes in the melodic curves?
  • How does the melody fit the lyrics?
  • How does the melody fit the chord progression?
  • Where does the melody clash with the chord progression?
  • How does the melody change to support the song structure or the song arrangement?

Chord Progressions

What chords do I play?

What chords can I write in my own songs?

How can I adapt ideas from a chord progression and use them in my own chord progressions?

  • What’s the chord progression?
  • What types of chords are used?
  • Are they Functional or Modal Chord Progressions?
  • What accompaniment patterns are played on each instrument?
  • What riffs or rhythmic patterns in the accompaniment?
  • Harmonic Rhythm (rhythm of the chords, how and when they change) How long for each chord, same for every chord or variety?
  • Are there musical transitions between sections?
  • How are the chord progressions and melodies written in the transitions?
  • Connection between riff and chord – does a riff stay on the same chord, modulate/move/change with different chords, create the harmony?

Arrangement

What notes do they play?

  • Instrumentation, what instruments are played?
  • What does each instrument play… notes & rhythms, in each section, how does each instrument fit together in the whole arrangement?
  • How does the Instrumental arrangement build through the song?
  • How does the Mix change in each section and throughout the song
  • What music/instrumental parts in the introduction, in each song section, are there changes on each repetition of a song section (building in each verse, or each chorus, what is played differently, added each time)?

Songwriting Reference Tracks-How to Learn From Songs You Love

Production

Why does the vocal and band sound so great?

How does it the entire song sound?

  • What techniques could you reproduce?
  • How balanced is the mix?
  • What instruments/parts standout as better / distinctive / exciting?
  • How does the mix evolve throughout the song?
  • What changes / contrasts between sections? During sections?

Action Steps

1. Create a playlist of songs you want to analyze. Start with 5 or less and begin work. Don’t build an overwhelming list.

2. Make written notes of your discoveries… don’t just read / listen, take notes!

3. Decide what elements or topics you need to focus on

4. Print out the lyrics and write notes on the page. Circle important things. Use different colours.

5. Devote some time to listen and read through these songs

6. Have fun listening and learning!

How to Level Up the Learning Process

Transcribe songs you want to analyze, instead of looking up the lyrics online. Write out all of the lyrics while listening to the song. Click here to learn the Fastest Way to Memorize Songs

Fastest Way to Memorize a Song

Personal Note: Songwriters and recording artists earn more from the purchase of their songs than from streaming. Support other songwriters and musicians by purchasing songs that you love and wish to analyze.

Leave a comment to help other songwriters…

What songs would use as Reference Tracks for your songwriting?

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