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Research Overview

A lucrative commercial market for brilliant art has always existed, and will always exist, whether the work of art is a painting, a movie, a novel or a song.

  • Great classic songs of any genre earn generous royalties for their writers (or their estates), year after year, decade after decade... songs such as Come Together, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Let's Dance, Summertime, Georgia On My Mind, The Girl From Ipanema, Crazy, We Are The Champions, Over The Rainbow, Folsom Prison Blues, and thousands more.

  • The writers of the above songs have one thing in common: they have consistently applied certain musical and lyrical techniques and skills in their songwriting that you (along with almost all other songwriters of today) do not know about.

  • Excellence in songwriting (resulting in long-term commercial songwriting success) closely correlates with the application of those techniques and skills. To reiterate: today's songwriters do not have those skills—that's why they do not write brilliant songs and fail to earn any significant songwriting royalties— especially long-term royalties earned by songs that become standards.

SongMatrix Research History

  • SongMatrix had its genesis in the late 1990s with a body of experimental research (still ongoing) comparing measurable, quantifiable musical and lyrical techniques (variables) evident in great classic songs (drawn from the most acclaimed songs of the world's most celebrated songwriters), with the same techniques evident in unpublished songs written by ordinary aspiring songwriters (drawn from demo recordings and self-releases of singer-songwriters and bands).

  • The null hypothesis—the default assumption—was that, when comparing the same musical and lyrical components of the "classic" and "ordinary" groups of songs, no significant differences would be found between the two groups. This "no-difference" assumption would mean that songs that become classics attain that status for reasons other than the techniques that the songwriters used in composing such songs. According to this hypothesis, classic songs become classics due to non-songwriting factors such as the popularity of the artist who made the song famous, the promotional efforts of record labels, and massive airplay characteristic of the bandwagon effect.

  • On the other hand, if significant differences were to be found between the "classic" and "ordinary" groups, then the null hypothesis would be rejected, and an alternative hypothesis proposed, namely that writers who consistently compose great classic songs know and employ certain songwriting techniques that enable them to write brilliant songs. This would also mean that nearly all other songwriters know little or nothing about these techniques, which would explain why ordinary songwriters produce millions of ordinary, run-of-the-mill songs every year. According to the alternative hypothesis, those who apply the techniques of the world's greatest songwriters create superior songs— songs that connect emotionally with listeners, even across genres and generations. Those who apply "ordinary" songwriting techniques write songs that fail to connect emotionally with listeners, dooming such songs to obscurity and oblivion.

Research Results

  • The research findings revealed many technical differences, in both music and lyrics, between the classic and ordinary song groups. The evidence strongly pointed to the alternative hypothesis: that songwriters who consistently write brilliant songs that eventually become classics do indeed use a variety of songwriting techniques that differ markedly from the techniques used by writers of ordinary songs. Some of the early findings of this research were incorporated into the first edition of How Music REALLY Works!, which was published in 2002.

  • By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, unsigned singer-songwriters and bands had created an explosion of websites showcasing their material. This greatly expanded the pool of "ordinary" songs available for testing against the classic group of songs in the continuing comparative research. More of these comparative results were incorporated in the book, How Music REALLY Works!, 2nd Edition, but not in a quantified format.

  • In 2007, the first quantification of the cumulative research findings became the first version of SongMatrix (unpublished). Since then, SongMatrix has undergone many updates and revisions. The current version is Version 4.2.

Emotion as a Communication Adaptation: The Heart of Great Songwriting

An adaptation is a biological trait that evolved by natural selection to enhance and promote survival or reproductive success. As described in Chapter 1 of How Music REALLY Works!, emotions are adaptations that evolved as a means of motivating action. 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 pervades all great art: visual art, language art, musical art.

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

  • Informal conversation communicates both information and emotion.

  • Emotional communication dominates great song lyrics and music.


Nearly all of the countless millions of new songs composed every year fail both artistically and commercially because they fail to strongly communicate emotions. (Note, however, that a virtuoso performance of a song, however mediocre the song itself, can at least provide some artistic value.) New songs that become hits on YouTube or Billboard every year owe their success to factors that have nothing to do with song quality:

  • The performer's charisma and manufactured star quality, popularity, and media profile: fans of the performer will buy practically anything associated with the performer: new music releases, concert tickets, merchandise

  • Intensive multi-media marketing and branding

  • Novel or slick production values

  • The bandwagon effect in social media and other such factors.

To some degree, every songwriter who is serious about their art knows how to manipulate a few musical and lyrical variables, such as tempo, diatonic scales, chord changes, rhyme, story line, and so forth. But perhaps only one songwriter in a million has the slightest awareness of how to deliberately optimize musical and lyrical variables such that the associated biological adaptations active in the listener's brain during the listening experience recognize the optimizations, triggering an emotional experience. That's what spells the difference between writing a three-minute "okay" or "pretty-good" song that draws polite applause but is quickly forgotten (because it does not communicate emotionally), and writing a three-minute masterpiece that draws a standing ovation and is destined to become a classic (because it does communicate emotionally).

Adaptation-friendly Songwriting

All of the listeners who have already heard or ever will hear your original songs were born with brains loaded at birth with the same adaptations you have. Certain of these adaptations enable a listener to potentially experience an emotional connection during the three or four minutes it takes to listen to a song—if, and only if, the song has been written to leverage or exploit these adaptations.

As a songwriter, if you would like to write three-minute masterpieces, you need to realize that every time an original song of yours rolls out in the dimension of time, in the form of a recording or live performance, that song puts many interrelated variables into play. And because your listener's brain is interpreting so many interrelated variables simultaneously during the listening experience, it takes only a few subtle screw-ups to turn a potentially adaptation-friendly song into a maladaptive song. That is, as a songwriter, if you screw up only a few of those variables during the writing process, the whole song will fail. That song will never resonate emotionally with the listener.

To avoid writing maladaptive songs, and instead put yourself on the path to consistently writing adaptation-friendly potential classics, you need to understand and apply the following organizing principle:

Organizing Principle of Adaptation-friendly Songwriting:

A song will deliver an emotionally compelling experience to a listener if the songwriter optimizes a sufficient number of certain musical and lyrical variables that activate various evolved adaptations that trigger emotional responses in the listener's brain.

Let's unpack this.

  • The purpose of any work of art, including a song, is to deliver an emotionally compelling experience—an emotional wallop.

  • The songwriter needs to know how to apply a range of musical and lyrical techniques (variables) that can potentially activate brain adaptations that in turn trigger emotional responses.

  • The songwriter needs to know which musical and lyrical variables apply to which brain adaptations.

  • The songwriter needs to know how to optimize the various musical and lyrical variables to maximize the probability of triggering a compelling emotional experience.

Empirical evidence indicates that very few of today's songwriters have any idea of how a listener's brain-based adaptations emotionally process the performance of a song (live or recorded).

SongMatrix shows you how great songwriters apply certain musical and lyrical techniques to create adaptation-friendly songs. The brain adaptations of interest in songwriting include, for example:

  • Short-term memory

  • Pattern recognition

  • Prediction and prediction-foiling

  • Entrainment (this is not a misspelling of entertainment)

  • Mind over reality

By knowing how the above brain adaptations are affected by which musical and lyrical techniques, positively or negatively, a songwriter can easily avoid writing maladaptive music and lyrics, and instead emphasize the specific techniques that consistently result in great music and lyrics—songs that pack an enormous emotional punch—time after time.

And that`s what SongMatrix is all about.


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