Analytical Techniques


Lecture:  Analysis by Listening







Tech Help






Theory Help





Music is, first and foremost, to be heard 

Can you analyze music just by hearing it?  Of course you can.  You do it all the time.

We are analyzing when we listen to music and say "That's country" or "That's jazz." 

We are analyzing the elements we hear to make those distinctions. 

The mark of a scholar (that's you) is to be able to articulate what we hear.

I'm not talking about the stilted, boring type of analysis writing.  The following paragraph is lifted from an article you will read next week, but is a good example of what I am NOT looking for:

After that cadence, an abrupt modulation to the flat submediant is followed by an expanded twopart song form in A-flat major characterized by modal mixtures on the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees. The first phrase is seven measures long with an expansion from second to fourth measures and modulates from the flat submediant to the sharp subdominant after a short transitory modulation in D-sharp minor, characterized by the usage of motive ‘x’ (but in its inverted form, as described above) and contrapuntally melded into motive ‘y2’ in the flat supertonic of the mediant, which is then treated sequentially (tonal sequences, of course) and then the passage ends on the afterbeat of the third beat of the measure. Of course motive ‘y3’ is heard throughout, while the viola is tacet for the following five measures but was probably omitted due to a copyist’s error, and not in the original autograph or any of the earliest published manuscripts, as witnessed in critical notes to the Barenreiter Critical Edition Vol. 346F.



You may be familiar with Pandora.  You pick a song or an artist and create a "station."  Then based upon their analyses of thousands (millions by now?) of songs, they play similar songs for you.


Pandora won't share its 400 plus criteria that they use to analyze each song, but those criteria fall under some general categories. 

The musicologists at Pandora listen for:

  • Structure/Composition

  • Rhythm/Meter

  • Ostinato

  • Roots

  • Tonality

  • Texture

  • Harmony

  • Form

  • Sonority

  • Instrumentation

  • Feel

  • Musical Qualities

  • Leanings/Stylings

  • Recording Techniques

  • Influences

  • Instrumental Ensembles

  • Individual Instruments

  • Lyrical Content

  • Vocals

  • Other

Here are a few of the more specific criteria that I ran across in researching Pandora:


extensive vamping

interesting part writing

use of strings

mystical qualities

heavy use of noise effects


altered vocal sound

middle eastern influence

dominant use of harmony

lyric-centered composition

major tonality

smooth jazz influences

well-articulated guitar solo

strong melodies

thru-composed melodic style


twelve-eight time signature

use of vocal counterpoint

block piano chords

west cost rap roots

world music influences

Brazilian jazz influences

flat-out funky grooves

danceable beats

breathy male vocal

tight kick sound

emotional male lead vocal

explicit lyrics

offensive lyrics

romantic lyrics

male lead vocalist

female lead vocalist

wide vocal range

narrow vocal range





reggae feel

prominent organ




experimental sounds

triple note feel

acoustic rhythm guitars

electric guitar riffs

vocal-centric aesthetic

mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation

extensive vamping

abstract lyrics

repetitive melodic phrasing

subtle use of vocal harmony

basic rock song structures

vocal harmony


danceable beat

thin orchestration

breathy vocals

hip-hop roots


dominant bass riff

multi-movement work







ostinati used

complex meters

dark mood



OK, you get the idea.  Each song has many specific characteristics.  This goes way beyond "That's country" or "That's jazz."

Think of it this way.  If you had to describe a piece of music to someone who could not hear it, how could you accurately articulate that in writing?  This is harder than you think.  What if you you could not use any 'genre' terms, but could only describe the music using descriptors like those above.  Would your reader be able to guess the genre?

Then there is the concept that your perception of the music is unique.  In describing and drawing conclusions based entirely upon listening, you are creating a narrative that will be different from any other person's concept of that piece of music.

Your musicianship that leads you to experience the music and then articulate that experience is a creation in itself!




Created and maintained by Vicky V. Johnson