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SongMatrix: Research Overview

Page Index

Origins of the SongMatrix Comparative Research Project

Research Findings to Date

Emotion as a Communication Adaptation: The Foundation of Great Songwriting


Origins of the SongMatrix Comparative Research Project

SongMatrix had its origins in the 1990s with a series of tests comparing measurable, quantifiable techniques (variables) evident in the music and lyrics of great classic songs (the "classic" group) with the same techniques evident in contemporary unpublished songs drawn from demo recordings and self-releases of singer-songwriters and bands (the "control" group).

Null Hypothesis: No Significant Differences in Songwriting Technique

The null hypothesis -- the default assumption -- was that, when comparing the same measurable musical and lyrical components of the classic and control groups of songs, no significant differences would be found between the two groups. That is, the evidence would show that the writers of both classic and control songs used essentially the same songwriting techniques.

This "no-difference" assumption would mean that songs that went on to become classics attained that status due to variables other than the techniques that the songwriters used in composing the songs: classic songs become classics due to non-songwriting factors such as the popularity of the artist who initially made the song famous, the promotional efforts of record labels, radio airplay, etc.

Alternative Hypothesis: Significant Differences in Songwriting Technique Account for Differences in Song Appeal

On the other hand, if significant differences were found between the classic and control groups (that is, the writers of classic songs were found to have used songwriting techniques differently -- or different techniques altogether -- from the writers of control songs), then the null hypothesis would be rejected in favor of an alternative hypothesis, namely, that the songwriters who composed those great classic songs knew and employed certain songwriting styles and methods that enabled them to write such emotionally appealing, well-loved, enduring songs.

This would also mean that writers of control songs (that is to say, nearly all contemporary songwriters) are not aware of these "classic" techniques. This would explain why, despite promotional efforts, the songs they write are seldom or never covered by other artists, do not cross genres, have little or no commercial success, and are quickly forgotten.

Research Findings to Date

So far, the findings have revealed many significant differences in songwriting technique (both music and lyrics) between the classic and control groups. The evidence favors the alternative hypothesis: that songwriters of the classic group used a variety of songwriting techniques that differ very substantially from the techniques used by writers of contemporary songs, resulting in the creation of brilliant songs that eventually became classics.

Two new books, SongMatrix: How Songwriting REALLY Works! and Words with Power: Emotionally-loaded Lists and Style Elements for Writers of Creative Prose, Poetry, and Song Lyrics (2022), will provide complete details of the musical and lyrical techniques used by writers of great classics (as evidenced in the comparative research findings), and how their techniques differ from the ones used by contemporary songwriters.

Emotion as a Communication Adaptation: The Foundation of Great Songwriting

The research findings indicate that contemporary songwriters who learn and apply the techniques used by the writers of great classic songs are likely to create decidedly superior songs, songs that connect emotionally with listeners, even across genres and generations -- in other words, potential classics.

As described in Chapter 1 of How Music REALLY Works!, emotions are adaptations that evolved as a means of motivating action. An adaptation is a biological trait that evolved by natural selection to enhance and promote survival or reproductive success. Without emotions, none of us would last very long; competing species would kill us off.

Emotions play a central role in the day-to-day lives of all members of our species, Homo sapiens. The communication of emotions lies at the heart of all good art: visual art, language art, musical art.

  • The antithesis of the artistic (emotional) use of language is its scientific and technical use, which communicates information, but practically no emotion.

  • Informal conversation communicates both information and emotion.

  • Emotional communication dominates great song lyrics and music.

continuum


Adaptation-friendly Songwriting vs Maladaptive Songwriting

If you are a songwriter, consider the following: All of the listeners who have already heard, or ever will hear, your original songs were born with brains loaded at birth with the certain adaptations that enable them to potentially experience an emotional connection during the few minutes it takes to listen to a song -- if, and only if, the song has been written to leverage or exploit these adaptations.

Some of the brain adaptations important in songwriting include, for example:

  • Short-term memory

  • Pattern recognition

  • Prediction and prediction-foiling

  • Mind over reality (suspension of disbelief)

As a songwriter, if you aspire to write three-minute masterpieces, you need to appreciate that every time an original song of yours rolls out in the dimension of time, in the form of a sound recording, video, or live performance, that song puts into play many interrelated variables in the minds of each listener. And because your listener's brain is interpreting so many variables simultaneously during the listening experience, it takes only a few misjudgments in the original writing of the music and lyrics of the song to turn a potentially adaptation-friendly song, with great emotional appeal, into a maladaptive song -- a song that does not appeal to the listener's adaptations the way you would like it to. Therefore, that song will never connect powerfully with any listener on an emotional level. Research findings indicate that this is the norm in contemporary songwriting, not the exception.

By learning which brain adaptations are affected by which musical and lyrical techniques, a songwriter can avoid writing maladaptive music and lyrics, and instead emphasize the specific techniques that consistently result in great music and lyrics -- songs that pack an emotional punch.

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