When analyzing a song, there are words that, if understood, can help develop listening patterns. Listening grids throughout AAmerican popular music give examples of what to look for in specific songs, but not an overview of general concepts that can be applied to any song.
Terms to understand
Understanding basic musical terminology can be helpful in interpreting the meaning of a song. These terms can also be used in listening charts to identify patterns and styles of composition in songs.
Bar / measure: Part of a song that contains a certain number of beats
Chorus: The part of the song that is repeated several times after each verse
- In Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the lyrics that are repeated over and over are “We never, never, never get back together.” You’re gonna talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me but we’ll never, never, ever get back together. It would be considered the chorus of the song.
Form: The overall structure of a song that uses letters to indicate the pattern of a song
- A song with the form AABB would mean that a song has two repeating sections (AA is the first section and BB is the second)
Kind: A separate music group with a specific sound
- Pop, Country, Classical and Blues are all musical genres
To hang up: A memorable musical phrase
- The catchphrase for Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” would be “We’ll never get back together,” as it is the most memorable line for the listener. It is important to note that not all square brackets will be the song title
Instrumental: A song using just instruments but no words
- Beethoven’s song “Für Elise” would be considered an instrument because the song has no lyrics
Instruments: The tools used to make the sounds to create a song
- Pianos, flutes, drums and guitars are all instruments often used in musical composition
Riff: A repeating pattern designed to generate rhythmic momentum
Solo: Part of a song or an entire song where only one instrument or singer is playing
Stanza: Part of a song, much like a paragraph in an essay
Syncope: A temporary change in the sound of the song caused by making a calmer rhythm in a song more important
Tempo: How fast or how slow is the speed of music
- Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a fast paced song; a song similar to this would have a fast tempo
Stamp: How loud is the sound of music
Voice : The lyrics / lyrics of a song
When analyzing a song, here are some things to remember
- Listen to the meaning
- What are the words or the instruments that try to say? Is a story being told? Why did the artist choose the lyrics?
- Think creatively and critically about music
- Is there a hidden meaning or motive that you notice in the song? What do the lyrics of the song say about the artist or the period?
- For example, in Taylor Swift’s “We Never Get Back together,” she says, “This time, I’m telling you, I’m telling you, we’re never, ever getting back together. This could mean that the artist is still dealing with a recent breakup and wishes to express his feelings of anger and resentment.
- Understanding popular music, culture and history
- Knowing the history of the composer / artist of a song can help you understand the meaning of music
- Researching the artist / composer of the song can provide information that can help explain the meaning of the song (i.e. period, artist’s childhood, historical events)
- For example, songs written during the Great Depression can have a sad meaning due to the economic hardships of that time.
Starr, L., & Waterman, C. (2010). American popular music. New York: Oxford University Press.