Song Structure

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

By Michael Anderson

Lately I have gone back to school so to speak—I have been researching and going back over the actual process of learning songs again. Very much the process of an old dog learning new tricks. I suppose in any field there is always something new to learn—but in music in general, and songwriting in particular, I don't know if one person has the time in a lifetime to cover it all.

I remember years ago sitting down with records (yes, that long ago) and playing them over and over again, sometimes until the vinyl developed a skip in place, trying to figure out a chord, or feel, or change, and learning the basics of how a song was constructed. What a difference technology makes—it is a breeze now with graphic audio editors and iTunes type playback. I should do a course on just that sometime.

I remember going into music stores and looking at song books for chord charts and trying to figure out my favorite songs—it was absolutely amazing in those days how wrong published books could be—you never knew until you tried it out how accurate those books were. Especially with Beatles songs—the Holy Grail of structure. If you could play a Beatles song (and I don't mean one of their Chuck Berry / Little Richard covers), you were good. I was not good. Neither were most of the people who tried to chart Beatle hits in songbooks in those days.

I am preparing to go out and do some live shows and wanted to add some of my favorite songs to the repertoire, partly for myself in order to get a better overview not only in my consulting other writers, but in my own writing. I was quite surprised at what I found using some of the knowledge I have picked up over the 25 odd years since my very early days of study.

Some things are much easier. For instance, most Blues books will give you tablature of John Lee Hooker songs or Muddy Waters arrangements that look like Greek—page after page of intricate (and in contemporary books—mostly accurate) note work and detail. But once you get the feel for it, most Blues guys are really mining their personal idiosyncratic version of the three chord Blues—once you get that overview it becomes a matter of style and technique (no small matter that—in fact, in Blues, it's the ball game).

I also found some unexpected things—for instance, some of Willie Nelson's (one of the best songwriters of our time) best melodies are written over very simple chord progressions. "Help Me Make It Through The Night" and "Blue Eyes Cryin' In The Rain" for example, are basically three and four chords. Then you get to "Crazy"—which sounds to me like Jazz—much more intricate in voicing and structure—but with the same singable quality in the melody.

And then we get to "Yesterday"—I believe the most covered song of all time. McCartney's masterpiece. I have tried for years to unlock this one so I could "get it." This time around I found out (thanks to the Internet—where was it when I really needed it 25 years ago) that he wrote it in standard tuning, with the guitar tuned down two frets (thus the low "E" is a "D", "A" is a "B", etc.), so the key of the song is "F" even though he played it in "G" positioning. Confused yet? So am I. Even knowing this it is a challenge for this old dog.

Now, I was quickly able to figure out an open "G" version of another favorite Beatle song, "Rain"—it is recorded in "G" and is basically a three chord song—thanks John, for making me feel less an idiot. Using a Blues tuning on this one is spooky cool. Like "Sorrow" from my "White Trash Shakespeare" album.

Well, I am still working on "Yesterday"—even when I hear other people play it, there is something not quite right about it—they seem to miss the essence. What is that? Joe Cocker was one of the few people I ever heard make a Beatles song his own with "Little Help From My Friends"—but he went around the block and gospeled it to do it. But he found it somehow.

So what does this mean to your writing? I listen to song after song at TAXI—and I have lately noticed a trend toward very monotone, simplistic chord movement and arrangement styles—perhaps influenced by the current "programming" mentality of songwriting.

It is redundant and eventually boring to a listener. Like playing, writing is a living thing—it has to breathe and develop through the arrangement.

Simple is good (see "Rain" or Willie Nelson), but wooden, simplistic, canned, mechanical repetition sounds like what it is—a clue to lack of depth and understanding of the art of communicating feeling and emotional essence. And isn't that what a song is supposed to be about? Isn't that what the best songs do?

I just wish McCartney could have found an easier way to do it in "Yesterday."

You can order Michael Anderson's "Little Black Book of Songwriting" from or


See How TAXI Works

Search TAXI

"I can't thank you guys enough for everything you do."
— Peter Elakis,
TAXI Member

"The critiques are awesome."
— Lole Usoalii,
TAXI Member

"I signed a two-song deal with a major Music Library for film and TV."
— Bob Kroeger,
TAXI Member

"TAXI costs a fraction of a songplugging company."
— Jimmy Clark,
TAXI Member

"Your dedication and hard work never ceases to amaze me."
— Jimmy Clark,
TAXI Member

"I'm impressed by how 'user-friendly' you are."
— Dean Saner,
TAXI Member