Some of you may think you know a song when you can:
- Play your part (IE guitar line if you’re a guitarist, bassline if you’re a bassists)
- Play from start to finish without a mistake
- Play along with the original recording
…but the truth is you can do all of the above and still not KNOW a song.
What does it mean to know a song, completely?
In my opinion, you can’t know a song until you dig into what makes the song tick. A large portion of it is going to involve applying music theory concepts. Some of the things you should look into are:
- Song structure (repetition and sections)
- Lyrical theme and structure
- melody (even if it’s sung by a voice, you should learn it on your instrument)
- harmony (functional analysis)
- bassline and chord inversions
- the scales or modes being used
Let’s take the song Autumn Leaves for example. By looking at the lyrics, we can understand that the song is about falling autumn leaves reminding us of a love one who has passed. This can guide us through the emotional content of the song and how we might express this emotion with our instruments.
The song form is a common AABC form. This reveals to us that there is a repeated A section at the beginning, with the B and C sections creating contrast. Knowing how the sections are structured can help us memorize large piece of music with less effort.
The rhythm, melody, harmony, and bass are the core musical elements of a song and all of these should be studied on ANY instrument. Yes even bass players should be learning the melody and chords. Drummers too. You can further micro-analyze these elements to identify motifs and smaller structures at play. In Autumn Leaves, there is a very clear four-note melodic motif that opens the song, and is moved in a downward direction. The harmony is based on a circle of fifths movement within the key. In the C section, there are chords that move at a faster harmonic rhythm than the rest of the chords (IE 2 beats per chord vs. a full bar). There is a chromatic bass line in this section as well.
Some songs are quite simple and only stay in one key, but others may modulate. Instead of seeing the song as one continuous progression of chords, identify the different tonal centers that are being used. Autumn Leaves starts in a major key and quickly moves to its relative minor key.
The song is generally played with notes from the major/minor scale of the given key, but at the end of the first A section, the melody is using notes from the melodic minor scale. The presence of a V7b9 chord in the minor key hints at a harmonic minor scale as well.
Why should we study these things? Because while you may be playing someone else’s song, it’s important to put your own identity into it. You cannot do this convincingly without knowing the inner workings of a song. Quite often, the underlying structure will inspire new ideas of how they can be manipulated to create a unique interpretation of any song. Apart from that your musical memory will improve greatly as you discover patterns and structures on the micro and macro level, finding connections between musical elements that first appeared disparate. Finally, it can also inform you on how a great song is written.