ICMP Songwriting Tutors | BBC 6 Music | Musicology | Part 3

Our Songwriting team share their latest insights c/o of BBC 6 Music Huw Stephens' show...


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 and second blogs on the shows - then find out more about their latest insights with Huw below...

Daniel Green | Key Changes

There are 12 major keys and 12 minor keys and the majority of songs are written within them. Then a key change takes place within the song between these keys, often to signify a new section. 

Many of us will recognise this from watching videos of boy bands such as Westlife performing a sentimental song. The key change will usually take place when they stand up from the stools they are sitting on. It's a visual move that emphasises the heightened emotion of the key change alongside more active instrumentation and soaring vocals. 

Westlife | 'You Raise Me Up' 

It also happens in Michael Kiwanuku's 'You Ain't the Problem'

In theory, a key change can occur at any moment in a song. In 'Out of the Woodwork' by Courtney Barnett, the key change takes place in the pre-chorus. It moves the song to a different key, melody and chord pattern which is a far more compositional approach than with Westlife. 

In today's musical world, many songwriters and producers use textures more broadly to help bring out the emotion as opposed to chords. Although there are some exceptions to this: 

Sophie Daniels | AABA Strophic Song Structure 

Every song has a structure and the majority of songs utilise one of five or six typical song shapes organised around verses and choruses. 

However, one is different to this - the AABA Strophic song structure. 

In this form, the first piece of the song is A, the next is A with different lyrics, the third is B, then the fourth is A again but with different lyrics once more. It's a simple song shape that works across a wide variety of musical styles and sounds. 

Typically in A, you will start or end with the hook of the song or the title of the song. 

Bob Dylan | 'Make You Feel My Love'

The first A section of the song ends with the 'Make You Feel My Love' refrain/title. It's an economical style of songwriting where you get to the point quickly. 

The next A is the same harmonic and melodic shape but features different lyrics. 

In the B section, the lyrics and musical content are entirely different to what has gone before. Then in the final A, we have the same musical content we have previously heard, but with another different set of lyrics. 

The AABA form has been around for 100 years, it's very common in musical theatre and many of the jazz songs from the thirties. Much of the work that makes up the Great American SongBook uses this structure. 

Kate Bush | 'The Man I Love'

This track uses this form and was originally written by George Gershwin with lyrics by his brother Ira in the twenties. The form has continued to stick around with many of the Beatles' releases from the sixties written around this structure too, although this is something you can experiment with. 

In David Bowie's 'Blackstar', this 10 minute song is built around the AABA structure. It features another AABA form with different sections before finishing with a final A section from the initial AABA section. 

For me, Carole King's 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?' is the perfectly constructed song. It's not as famous as the version by the Shirelles, but it is so well written - precise, cleverly built and really stands the test of time. 

Anj Perin | Strings 

Strings are used across different songs within different genres and have been around for thousands of years. However, in modern arrangements, when talking about strings in modern arranging, we mainly refer to the violin, viola, cello and double bass.

Music terminology includes lots of different approaches to the strings that can get a certain sound or effect from a player so that is a great way to show what strings can be used for. 

Pizzicato is a technique used to produce sound by plucking the violin strings with your fingers instead of using the bow. 

Sting | 'Englishman in New York' 

In this track, the strings have a syncopated pattern that give the song a real sense of bounce. 

The opposite is arco, which means 'bowed'. With this approach, the strings are played with a bow and have long, sustained notes that really draw out the emotion. A great example of this in contemporary music is 'Unfinished Symphony' by Massive Attack. Here the strings are sweeping and dramatic to make it feel quite epic, a bit like a film score or powerful orchestra. 


In Jamiroquai's 'Too Young To Die', the opening section with the strings finishes with a wobble which adds another texture - the vibrato.  

In Elbow's 'One Day Like This', the strings go between two styles - from legato to staccato. 

In this example, the legato makes up the smoother passages, then the staccato provides a sharper, rhythmic motif which makes the song punchier and moves things along. When the vocals come down in the mix, then there is the pizzicato plucked style of playing that provides more space around the lead vocal.

Glissando is a technique where a series of notes are played in sequence to create a gliding, sweeping sound. You can hear this in Jungle's 'Keep Moving'

There is a slide and some quick notes played alongside it. Glissando is used a lot and can be for quite dramatic effect. For example, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 'Psycho' where it is sometimes used to make things sound sinister to reflect the scream and the knife. 

The tremolo is sometimes used to show the transition from one section of a song to another or sometimes used in intros and outros. It can be a great way of building something up in a song, like a kind of buzzing effect.

Nick Drake | 'River Man'

Strings can sometimes be the main instrument when their arrangements take a front row seat alongside the main melody. One way is through a counter melody and you can see them almost like a dueting partner, without obstructing the main melody of a song. 

The Beatles | 'Eleanor Rigby'

You can hear the two melodies at play here with the cello part and the lead vocal, the two parts working together and seeing what they need, and what other space there is to occupy. It can work really well in this setting. 

Finally, an example of just how glorious strings can be and how differently they can be used in a song, listen to Gabriels' 'To the Moon and Back'

Dan Green | Covers 

To mark the 30th anniversary of Hole's 'Live Through This', which contains the cover of 'Credit in the Straight World' by Young Marble Giants, we're going to talk about what makes a good cover, how you can approach it, and using Hole as an example, looking at how they have interpreted the music of other artists throughout their career. 

Some famous cover versions include 'Nothing Compares 2 U', originally written by Prince, then covered by Sinead O'Connor. 

It was only a hit thanks to Sinead, then Prince reclaimed it by playing it live later in his career. 

The qualities of a good cover version

It has to resonate with the artist covering it. A song has lyrical and musical components but the perception of these is informed by the way it is performed or produced. The greatest cover versions are not karaoke versions of the original - a great cover will look to give a track a new identity. 

Fleetwood Mac | 'Gold Dust Woman' 

Hole made this song much heavier. It's a minor interpretative cover of the original. So these types of covers maintain the sense of the original - tempo, instrumentation, melody and lyrics. They only make minor adjustments. For example, the verses are downbeat like the original, then the song increases in intensity as it progresses. 

Duran Duran | 'Hungry Like the Wolf'

Hole only covered this when playing live. This is more of an ironic cover - Duran Duran are a new wave band of the eighties, known for their polished production. Hole are very much the opposite, making this version strange and weird. 

Joni Mitchell | 'Both Sides Now'

This version of Joni Mitchell's classic track features on Hole's debut album, 'Pretty on the Inside', and their version is almost unrecognisable. Hole's treatment is a major interpretative cover where there is more than a significant change to tempo, melody, instrumentation and lyrics - it's almost like a new song. 

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
June 17, 2024
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