Welcome to Part II
In part I of this article, I broke down the process of song analysis. We talked about the three main elements of a song, and broke each element down into it’s respective parts. So, in order to complete the journey, we need to actually perform a song analysis! In this article I will walk you through how I have learned to analyze a song, and what that means.
One of my favorite recordings of the 2000’s is “In Rainbows” by Radiohead. It is a fantastic sounding record. The production is complex, layered, but also pristine and vibrant. The song I am going to use here is “All I need”. Obviously, the most important part of song analysis is… LISTEN TO THE SONG! 🙂
When I say listen, I don’t mean on your phone while you are commuting to work or other distracting environments. Find a place where you can be alone, close your eyes, and truly take a close, and deep listen. Also, keep pen and paper handy, because we are going to write down our immediate impressions after listening.
Picking up where we left off
If you remember, the three elements main elements of song analysis are:
- Artist Identity
- Song Structure
- Recording and Mix Values
Let’s start with Artist Identity. If you look back at Pt I of this article, we can see that there are many elements that make up an artists’ identity. For this song analysis, we want to take a few of the more pertinent elements and create a short paragraph that zooms in on the artist, and the particular recording we are talking about:
The identity of Radiohead as a whole is a well-established one of musical pioneers and innovators. This record is nothing different. Singer Thom Yorke’s identity as a tortured, almost self-loathing artist is also clearly on display. The vision for the record seems to be a dark blend of influences, from electronic and hip-hop, to indie-rock. The intention seems to have been to create an atmosphere of tension and obsession.
Song Analysis Example
Now that we have set the stage by writing a short paragraph about the artists’ identity, and taking a good deep listen (or two, or four!) to the song, we should write down everything we hear. You can make this as short or as long as you want, but pay attention to detail! What are the pictures being painted? Where does the melodic content go? What is the song form like? How does the arrangement inform the artists’ intention? What stands out to you about the mix? Here is my written analysis of “All I Need”:
The whole song painted pictures of this character flitting in and out of shadows as he slavishly obsessed over the object of his fascination, ostensibly a love interest. The lyrics are vivid and detailed, and easily conveyed the intended emotions.
The verse melodies are low and within a limited range, which to me helps the stalker-ish quality of the lyrics. It almost seems as if the character is talking to himself as he observes the subject. Then it rises into the choruses, which helps to illustrate his desperation. The final bridge/ outro at the end rises to a feverish wail, as the melody and emotion peaks here, very effectively delivering the climax.
The repetition of the first two lines of the chorus (hook/ title) very effectively sets up the last line …“lying in the reeds”. That line is what gives you the creeps a bit, and is in the power position as the last line of the chorus. The repetition of the verse/ chorus melodies and groove also lends itself well to the creepy, obsessive feeling. The synth bass line actually repeats methodically through the entire song, adding to the feeling of mounting tension.
The kick and bass here are together in a looser sort of way. The bass is a synth line, which does hit on some of the syncopated beats of the kick, but is not coupled tightly in a traditional sort of way. Again, the repetition here of the bass line, and it’s looseness with the kick, contributes to the feeling of unease.
There is certainly some pain/pleasure paradox going on here. This is not a happy character. In keeping with Thom’s identity. This is a creepy, obsessive song, and the character is lamenting over his inability to focus on anything other than what he “needs” from the subject.
Song form analysis
Intro: Some synth strings start us off, along with what I believe to be bass guitar, just plucking some sustained major thirds, a little guitar feedback also in the background. The beat kicks in after a couple measures, then four measures later the synth bass line, for six more measures then…
Verse 1: This same arrangement continues through the first verse… Synth bass, strings (which gradually disappear), guitar feedback, vox, drums. Just before the chorus comes in the guitar starts doing a single distorted note.
Chorus 1: The strings drop out entirely, just drums, the synth bass line, vocals and the single guitar note. Definitely reflects obsessiveness.
Verse 2: enter some bells doing a harmonic counterpoint to the bass line, the piano, some noisy distorted synth , backwards cymbal swells, some far off cymbal/ percussive strikes and some more strings, but this time, distorted and twisted. This guy’s mind is squirming.
Chorus: It sucks back down to just the bass line, beat, vox and a piano doubling the bass line… a bit of ambient synth in there as well, but most of the hash is gone.
Bridge/ Outro: the piano becomes the focal point as everything opens up, drummer riding the crash, strings are back in, bells, vox, wide open, the climax.
The rule of three is stretched pretty good here:
Rhythm: Drums, synth bass line, bells providing counterpoint, and piano doubling the bass line.
Vocals: Just Thom
Wild card: strings, ambient and distorted synth noises, guitar feedback and one note line in first chorus. Piano in the bridge/outro.
This is a pretty dense mix by the time it gets to the end. It is huge, and sort of pulses and moves in a really cool way. The focal point is definitely the vocals in the first verse and the choruses. The second verse maybe a little less, as things start to escalate. By the time the outro hits, you can barely make out what Thom is saying. The vocals have a huge reverb and some delay on them, typical for Radiohead. I find it adds to the gloomy, creepy aspect of the song.
The drums, bass line and vox are up the middle, the strings are to the left, the plucked bass in the intro to the right. The guitar feedback is panning around a bit behind the vox. When it drops to the single note, it stays put just off to the left. Piano comes in on the second verse to the left with the twisted strings, bells to the right, along with distorted synth. Cymbal swells on the left with some far off percussive cymbals just right of center.
The piano widens to a more full stereo image when it becomes the focal point in the outro. Everything else stays pretty much put. This mix is very well balanced. The low end is huge, but tight, the mids are focused, allowing plenty of room for the vocals (at least during the first verse and choruses), and the high end is shimmering, airy, but not sibilant.
Last, but not least, we are going to create a simple, hand-drawn chart our song analysis. This helps us visualize what we are hearing, and gives us some technical data-points to consider. For example, here is my chart analysis of “All I Need”.
As you can see, we have created three simple timelines. First, as we listen to the song, we will just create a sort of graph of the emotional trajectory of the song. This can be somewhat subjective, but just simply move the line up and down as you feel the emotional movement while you are listening. Also, make sure to note where you feel the climax of the song occurs.
After that, we will do the same with the “dynamics” of the song. Then, we will create an actual timeline, with minute:second markers noting the form, and the length of each section in bars. Under this, we will list the changes to the arrangement from section to section.
Last, we will determine the tempo and key. To figure the BPM, simply set a stopwatch for 10 seconds. Count the number of beats, then multiply by six. For the key, it is easiest for me to just pick up a guitar, or get in front of the piano, and fish around until I find the root.
Masters of Their Craft
As you can see in our written, and graphic song analysis above, Radiohead has done some pretty unique, and effective things with this song. For example, the choruses are actually dynamically softer than the second verse, and the outro, which is unusual. The climax and highest dynamic point is at the very end. Interestingly, most sections have an uneven numbers of bars! All of these points serve to make us feel a little “unbalanced”, creating tension, and gearing us up for the big climax at the end, which only sort of gives us closure as it never returns to the root. All in all, a great example of a very well-crafted song that purposefully uses these techniques to deliver it’s emotional intent with clarity and forcefulness.
What We Have Learned
As we discussed at the beginning of Part I, we can learn so much from artists who are at the top of their game! Sitting down to do a thorough song analysis on a regular basis can inspire us, and give us fresh ideas for our own songs and production. Learning how to analyze a song is a practice well worth the time, in my opinion. It is never too late to keep educating ourselves… learning music production and songwriting is a lifelong pursuit! I hope these articles have made your journey a little easier!