ICMP Songwriting Tutors | BBC 6 Music | Musicology | Part 2

Check out the latest BBC 6 Music features with our Songwriting team...


ICMP's Songwriting team joined DJ and broadcaster Huw Stephens' new BBC Radio 6 Music show as Musicologists earlier in the year. 

Since January 2024, members of the Songwriting faculty have been interviewed by Huw each week to discuss different aspects of the songwriting process. 

The slot has seen Professor Sophie Daniels, Daniel Green, Head of Academic Development, and tutor Anjali Perinparaja explore song structures, techniques and analyse contemporary tracks to learn more about how they are written and put together. 

You can check out the first shows - and find out more about their latest insights with Huw below...

Anjali Perin | Alabama Shakes | 'Sound and Colour' | 'Gimme all your Love'

We should start with the vocals as Brittany Howard's voice is such an instrument, it's so expressive, it's such a big part of why so many people loved Alabama Shakes, and why she's forged this amazing solo career. 

'Sound and Colour' producers

On this album, Brittany worked with Blake Mills, and mixing engineer Sean Everitt, both make up a very important element of the record's sound. 

Unusual recording techniques

Blake and Sean had worked together before and adopted a really experimental approach. With Brittany, they felt that they could take her ideas as a songwriter and try some out-of-the-box approaches to recording. 

Alabama Shakes | 'Gimme All Your Love'

On 'Gimme All Your Love', they took a pair of headphones apart - as we know headphones often play music into our ears - but they reverse wired them so it acted as a microphone, then made Brittany record her vocals through them. It gives the song a really unusual texture and sound over the top of everything else played by the band. 

Vocal production

There are tender and soft qualities in the vocals but they also have this far away and pleading nature to them too. This comes through and is really congruent with what the song is about. It's an emotional track, the way it builds tells a love story, moving from being tender and soft to more of a wail of desperation. 

As you can hear, there is a screech-like wail on the vocal - AC/DC's Brian Johnson is a reference for Brittany - then there is also the delay on her vocal which is spooky and unsettling too. It adds rhythm and punches, adding an extra emotional element and a little bit of madness. 

Hammond organ 

The organ here is so important with the gospel sound and is present in the songs of so many rock bands from the seventies. This has influenced rock and reggae bands too. You can hear it at the beginning of Bob Marley's 'No Woman, No Cry'.

There is a lot of light and dark in the song, a sense of a journey from the laid-back romantic vibe to the insistent epic ending that's heralded by the guitar solo. 

You can hear how the guitar sounds distorted and harsh, the wild sense of abandon it gives with the change in tempo too. 

It gives us a song of two halves and some of that sound is very much from the era of British rock bands like Queen and Led Zeppelin in their song, 'What is and What Should Never Be'.

Then you also hear the impact of what we call the British guitar stack combo where signals were fed through more than one amp. This can be heard in Cream's song, 'White Room'

Dan Green | Vampire Weekend and the role of Drums and Bass

If you listen to 'Ya Hey' from Vampire Weekend's 'Modern Vampires of the City' album, it's obvious how drums and bass are an essential element of the song, their sound and recordings.

Most musicians understand that a great rhythm section with a great drummer and bass player is absolutely vital for making a band sound whole and supporting everything else that happens within the track. 

Here are some examples of different uses of bass and drums in songs. 

Steely Dan | 'Black Cow'

The bass is doubled with another instrument, a clavinet, which is a very seventies sound. You can also hear it in 'Superstition' by Stevie Wonder. Hearing something exposed like this is a great way of showing the importance and power of the rhythm section. 

Steely Dan have a tight and crisp sound, they are one of those bands that even in the modern era, musicians marvel at their ability in the studio. 

The White Stripes | 'Hardest Button to Button' 

This is a very simple and effective stomp of a song. Everything is sounding on the strong beats, so you just want to move your head to it. That's the magic in 'Ya Hey' by Vampire Weekend too. When you get to the chorus, there's a very similar effect where you are emphasising the strong beats through the drums and the bass. 

There are many reasons behind using it:

1. The pulse-like groove playing resembles the human heart beat so when we hear it, it locks in with the body's natural rhythm. Another example of this would be 'Controversy' by Prince. 

This track is over 120 bpm and naturally injects us with adrenaline when we listen to it. 

2. In the chorus, the stomp is used to make the track sound upbeat and positive, especially when compared with the previous section. A good example is 'Waiting for the Sun' by the Jayhawks. In the pre-chorus, we have one particularly sounding type of groove, then the stomping groove in the chorus.

So we meander, pick up the stomp, and this makes for a good chorus as it gives us a great sense of excitement. 

Sophie Daniels | Songwriting and the Chorus

The chorus is often the biggest and best bit of a song, often what a song is constructed around as you can hear in 'Creep' by Radiohead. 

What are choruses

The chorus is often the main hub of a song, usually featuring the biggest bits dynamically, where all the key elements of the song will occur - your lyrics, hooks, riffs, harmonics.

Remember, choruses are usually simple and memorable. As a listener, you should want to join in with the chorus the second time you hear it. 

Typically, choruses state the title of the song, what the song is about, and choruses are usually the same each time they occur. In theatre, your Greek chorus is the group who stand and join in with certain key parts of a song and this is where the term comes from. 

Song shapes with choruses

There are five or six typical song shapes. In your classic verse chorus verse chorus song, the whole construction is built around a chorus as heard in David Bowie's 'Life on Mars'.

It happens in hip hop and dance genres too where songs also have different shapes. It's still important for these tracks to have the central, singable part. In Lauryn Hill's 'Everything is Everything', the shape is a bit different where the sections keep bouncing off the chorus. 

This song starts with a chorus which is hard to do if you use a typical shape. One way of doing it is to have a half chorus or an empty chorus which is where we play the chorus but without singing the lyrics. It happens in this Nirvana classic.

If you heard a whole chorus at the beginning, it would be too much by the time you got to the third chorus and the song would be unmanageable so this is a really good way around it. 

Unusual choruses 

It's always been the case that the music industry wants songwriters to have choruses happen as early as possible in a song. 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus', is the infamous quote from Motown's Berry Gordy. 

Phoebe Bridges | 'Motion Sickness'

Phoebe Bridges is a great crafter of song and is able to pull off a chorus that changes during the track. The rule is that choruses should always be the same but the rules are made to be broken and those who are great at writing will be adept at doing this.  

Anjali Perin | How Songwriters use Backing Vocals 

Our voices are a primary form of communication. When we come together and use them, this creates a sense of community. In their purest form, voices can provide all the musical information needed - this is unaccompanied singing and described as acapella. It's quite wonderful to know that this sound comes from some voices coming together and singing in harmony. 


You can hear this in Stevie Wonder's 'Love's In Need of Love Today', a song that starts with the harmonies of this beautiful acapella vocal intro and there's plenty of gospel influence in these vocals too.


Backing vocals can be used instrumentally, and can add percussive elements to a song. They are not always just about the lyrical content. 

Kate Bush | 'Running Up that Hill' 

In this song, Kate Bush's own vocals are used as backing vocals. Thanks to music technology and production, voices can be made to sound different from their natural sound. In this song, they build space around the lead vocal, and come from a different place tonally.


Sometimes, songwriters place the lyrics and story in the backing vocals which is when they take on a much bigger and more important function. 

Gladys Knight and the Pips | 'Midnight Train to Georgia'

In this song, they contribute a lot to the story and the different perspectives. There is also a great skill involved in writing different sets of lyrics on top of each other like this. 

Change a song's energy 

Backing vocals can also move a song into a different space energy-wise - either making a song more mellow or building things up. My favourite backing vocal arrangement is in Neil Young's 'Old Laughing Lady'. There is such a contrast between the lead vocal and the witchy backing vocals which takes the song into a very different place. 

Bring a different style/genre to a song

Backing vocals also have other functions including allowing a different musical style to be added to a song. 

In David Bowie's 'Young Americans', the backing vocals are gospel soul compared with his own understated vocal line. This provides a great contrast so it works really well. On 'Young Americans', one of the backing vocalists is Luther Vandross too. If you are getting expert backing vocalists, they can lend authenticity and an extra element to a track too. 

Write songs that last for generations

A great song can become truly timeless, remembered for generations as part of the world’s cultural legacy. Whether you want to craft a killer melody or pen poetic lyrics, our tutors will teach you everything you want to know, including all the production, performance, professional and entrepreneurial skills needed to ensure that your unique creations get the recognition they deserve. You’ll also benefit from A&R-style critique sessions, collaborative opportunities, access to fully equipped live rooms, recording studios and tech suites, and a community of inspiring contacts and friends.

To catapult your songwriting and music career to a whole new level, email our friendly Admissions Team at enquiries@icmp.ac.uk or give them a call on 020 7328 0222.

Songwriting courses
by ICMP staff writer
April 30, 2024
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