A song is so much more than a single entity. It's a collection of various elements arranged in a specific manner, and the way in which those elements are arranged can lead to infinite possibilities.
Like a sandwich, music consists of multiple layers and a number of unique ingredients, all of which must be perfectly combined for the best possible outcome.
Chances are, without even realizing it, you've probably already analyzed music at some point in your life, especially if you've ever produced a track. However, whether you're a casual listener or a pro music producer, analyzing songs is an incredibly beneficial practice that I believe music creators of all avenues should embrace.
When we actively listen to our favorite music, it helps us to develop a deeper understanding of what we're listening to. By actively focusing on the various elements in a song, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, production techniques, mix processing, and more, you can gain valuable insights into how different components interact and contribute to the overall sound.
Plus, it can inspire creative ideas that you may not have come up with on your own!
After all, we're products of influence, right?
The question then becomes, how do we put active listening to use in the music analysis process so we can use it when writing or producing our own music?
Come with us as we explore a unique 7-step analysis process!
Why It's Important to Analyze Songs
As a music producer, I can't state the value of song analysis enough. It's such a beneficial skill for music producers, as it provides valuable insight into production techniques found in professional songs.
When you delve into the components of a track, it allows you to more easily identify the elements that make it appealing. You can then take that insight and use it to make informed decisions while composing your own music.
It can also be a valuable tool to draw inspiration from your favorite songs. The more and more you actively listen to your favorite artists, the more repertoire you'll have to explore alternative ways of expressing yourself when making music.
Things You Need to Analyze Music
Before we dig into the "how" and "why," make sure you have the following items to optimize the listening process.
There's really no point in trying to analyze a track if you only have a low-quality 128kbps file that you ripped from YouTube. While you can still analyze the arrangement and composition and arrangement, trying to dig into the more nuanced aspects of the track, such as the production, mixing, or mastering, becomes far more challenging.
If you want a more accurate analysis, I recommend using a minimum of 320kbps MP3 quality. If you have access to Apple Music or Spotify Premium, you can select the highest-quality settings when listening.
In an ideal world, however, you should try and get your hands on an uncompressed lossless file, such as WAV or AIFF, if you can find one. Although you might not notice much of a difference at first listen, these kinds of files provide the closest representation to what you would hear in a professional studio environment, all while delivering a more accurate basis for analysis.
Professional-Grade Speakers or Headphones
Though I used to throw shade at earbuds, I'm a huge fan of my Apple AirPods now.
The sound quality is pretty solid for what they are, and when it comes to general listening and portability, they're hard to beat.
However, I would never recommend using them to analyze the intricate details of a song, such as the production, mixing, or mastering, as the lack of clarity and biased frequency response can make it hard to discern the critical elements we need to listen for.
Instead, invest in a pair of high-quality speakers or headphones that provide a more accurate listening experience. If you're getting into production, mixing, or mastering, you should have a good pair of professional-grade headphones anyway.
The good news is that you don't have to break the bank to find a decent set of headphones, as there are plenty of budget-friendly options out there. For example, I see plenty of newbie producers using Audio Technica's ATH-M20x headphones, which provide a pretty accurate listening experience for the price.
If you want to step it up, however, I'd recommend the Beyerdynamic DT-770s. These accurate and detailed headphones have been my go-to for years now. They use a comfortable, closed-back design and deliver accurate sound, reliable bass response, and incredible clarity.
Next, you need something to take notes on, whether that's a notepad, your laptop, or your phone.
The key here is to actively engage with the music you're listening to by writing down each of the elements you hear.
I usually use the 'Notes' app on my MacBook with bullet points of everything I can hear in the track.
The Analyzing Process
#1 Listen to the Track
The initial step in the analytical process is active listening .
Dedicating a substantial amount of time to listening to the song you're trying to analyze, even if you're not a huge fan of it, is incredibly important.
Again, you want to make sure your listening experience is optimal, so use a high-quality pair of headphones that can reproduce the subtlest details of the track you're listening to.
Actively listening to the song will give you a much deeper understanding of how and why certain elements are used and how they are employed.
For instance, you might start your first pass of listening by paying close attention to the drums alone. See what kinds of drum elements are being used and what kind of pattern the song is using.
You don't want to dive in too deep just yet, so try to ask yourself a few general questions as you go along, such as:
- How does the melody and chord progression make you feel?
- Is the rhythm and tempo mellow, energetic, or somewhere in between?
- What kind of overall structure is the song using?
- What elements stand out, and how are the different elements used in the song?
- Are there any motifs?
I'm a huge proponent of taking notes about your first impressions of the song throughout your first listen. Consider whether or not it evokes an emotional response.
Once you have a general idea of how the track makes you feel, you can move on to the next part.
#2 Figure Out the Tempo and Key
Next, you'll want to determine the key and tempo of the song. These are crucial elements that play a HUGE role in the overall character and emotional impact of a song.
For starters, different keys can establish different emotional responses. Major keys, for example, major keys often convey a sense of happiness or optimism, while minor keys tend to evoke emotions like sadness or introspection.
Beyond its emotional impact, the key can also tell you how the notes and chords of a song are harmonically related. It establishes the tonal center, known as the tonic, around which melodies and harmonies revolve. Understanding the key allows musicians to navigate the song's chord progressions, improvisation, and melodic development effectively. It provides a sense of coherence and musical structure.
There are a few ways you can find the key of a song:
- Listen for the tonic note : Most songs have a "home" note that they revolve around, which provides an intangible sense of resolution. The tonic note typically gives you insight into the key.
- Identify chord progressions : We'll get more into this late, but it's important to note that analyzing a song's chord progressions can also help you determine the key.
- Look It Up : Depending on the track, you may be able to look up info about the key online. Tunebat is one of my favorite websites for quick key info.
Once you know the key, you can start sussing out the tempo.
At its foundation, the tempo of a song is what defines its speed and feel. Feel is pretty vague, but it's a common term you'll often hear when discussing groove.
Listen for how the tempo establishes the groove and momentum and enhances the emotional qualities of the song.
#3 Explore the Structure
The third step is to begin exploring the overall structure of the song.
By 'structure,' I mean the arrangement and organization of the different sections. You want to know how these different sections relate to one another to make up the entire arrangement.
Start by writing down the different sections that you hear.
I often like to import a track into my DAW (Pro Tools) to do this. That way, I can use markers on the timeline to distinguish the sections. This also makes it easier to listen for different elements down the line, as I can loop certain sections of the track as I go along.
Most popular songs have several distinct sections.
For example, your average pop song looks something like this:
Of course, when you start stepping outside the pop realm into non-traditional genre formats like jazz, blues, or house music, the structures can change drastically.
No matter what genre you're analyzing, there are a few things to keep track of during this part of the process:
- Find the Theme : The first thing you want to figure out is if there are any sections or musical phrases repeated throughout the song. People will often refer to these as 'motifs.' In music, they're sections or phrases that create familiarity and reinforce key musical ideas.
- Consider dynamic changes : Are there any major dynamic changes from section to section? Dynamics have to do with volume. Most great pieces of music have dynamic changes that coincide with structural changes to create tension and release.
- Listen for Transitions : Pay attention to how the song moves from one section to another. The thing about transitions is that they're not always obvious. Some songs transition pretty seamlessly, while others use specific musical cues, such as FX, drum fills, key changes, or modulations, to move from section to section.
I recommend familiarizing yourself with common song structures, such as Verse-Chorus, ABAB, AABA, etc.
#4 Analyze the Chord Progression
Like the key and tempo, the chord progression used in a song is another tool for expressing emotional qualities.
To truly get to grips with how chord progressions work, you need to have a decent understanding of music theory. We have plenty of articles that expound on music theory elsewhere, so I won't get too much in the weeds right now.
The two most important reasons we analyze chord progressions, however, are gaining an understanding of harmonic structures and uncovering recurring patterns or motifs.
The harmonic structure can tell us how chords are organized and related to one another in the context of the song. Songs also often feature recurring patterns or chord progressions to create motifs. When we closely analyze chord progressions, we start to get an idea of how songwriters use these motifs to create familiarity.
So, how do you analyze the chord progression of a track?
You can start by carefully listening to the song and identifying each of the chords, writing them down as you go. I'll often start by focusing on the root notes and the quality of the chords (major, minor, diminished, etc.).
One of my personal favorite websites for determining keys, and one that I often recommend to music theory newbies, is Name That Key . You can input a series of chords into the site's key generator and it'll give you an idea of what key you're in.
#5 Analyze the Lyrics
Lyrics are the heart and soul music. And for writers, they're the main tool for artistic expression.
When you closely examine lyrics in a track, you'll often find unique themes and literary devices used to form that artistic expression.
I'd recommend listening to your chosen song while following along with the lyrics.
Thankfully, most popular song lyrics can be found on sites like Genius or A-Z Lyrics.
Try and see if there's a narrative the song is following or if there are any recurring ideas the songwriter keeps floating back to.
What's important to note is that lyrics can either be literal or figurative.
Literal lyrics are straightforward, giving us a clear window into the story being told and the characters involved. On the other hand, figurative lyrics, such as those that use metaphors, similes, personification, or symbolism, are often more subjective and are used to enhance meaning or evoke emotion.
There are so many ways we can interpret and analyze lyrics, but one thing I often find is most helpful is trying to determine the writer's intention. What audience are they singing for? What culture or context does the song relate to, if any?
#6 Analyze the Mix
Analyzing a mix requires careful audio analysis. You can certainly use tools, such as a frequency spectrum analyzer or stereo-width visualizer, to help, though your ears are the most important tools you have.
With that said, being able to visualize a track's mix is equally important, as it connects our senses and gives us a better understanding of placement. David Gibson wrote a book called "The Art of Mixing," and the image below is an iconic visualization of how different musical elements and various instruments sit in a mix.
When analyzing a mix, there are several elements to consider, including
- Volume Levels : How loud are some musical elements compared to others?
- Frequency Content : The frequency spectrum in a mix represents the balance of low, mid, and high frequencies in a piece of music.
- Stereo Image : The stereo image and soundstage are part of the horizontal arrangement of a mix, telling us about the placement and width of instruments and vocals across the stereo field.
- Dynamics : With dynamics, we can see how loud or soft certain parts of a mix are, as well as the difference between the loudest and softest parts. Some songs make heavy use of compression, while others allow for greater dynamics.
- Tone : What are the noticeable tonal qualities of each musical element? Are the vocals bright or dark? How about the drums, bass, and guitars? Using a frequency analyzer can be helpful in this regard.
While the above characteristics are the main things you'll want to consider, you might also want to listen for the amount of clarity and separation in a mix or what kinds of effects are used and how.
#7 Analyze the Master
The final stage of analyzing a track is the mastering process.
Relying solely on your ears when analyzing a master can be a challenge, which is why I recommend utilizing visual tools, stereo-width vectorscopes, and LUFS meters.
LUFS, which stands for "Loudness Units Full Scale," is the industry standard for loudness, looking at the average loudness over time.
One of my favorite tools for meaning LUFS is iZotope Insight 2, as it also provides helpful information about stereo width and frequency spectrum.
By this point, you should have a good idea of how to go about analyzing music properly. The next step is taking your music analysis from your favorite songs and implementing it into your own music. From basic drum pattern elements to mix processing, there are so many things to uncover during the music analysis process, and there's no one specific way of approaching it. Have fun and treat it as an exercise in exploration that will ultimately translate to better music creation.