A good song is like poetry put to music, making it more difficult to analyze than some people might think. A song is full of literary devices and figurative language, and the music develops tone and mood. When writing an essay about a song, you can't pay attention to the lyrics alone. The way the melody accompanies the lyrics can intensify or even change their emotional meaning, because music is a language on its own.
Listen and Brainstorm
Listen to the song a few times. Without thinking too much about stylistic specifics yet, write down how the song affects you. Decide how it makes you feel, and try to discern a central theme or message.
Read Closely and Analyze
Get a printout of the song lyrics so you can scrutinize them more closely. Scour the words for literary devices and consider how their use affects the meaning and feel of the song. For example, consonance, the repetition of consonant sounds, especially after a stressed vowel, can make a line of poetry sound harsher to the ear. A songwriter might use it in a song lyric to communicate frustration over a recent breakup or to create emphasis by making the sounds stand out more.
Consider the Music
Listen to the song again with your notes in front of you. Consider how the music aligns with the words. Cock your ears for crescendos, pauses, instruments fading in or out of the arrangement and tempo changes. Ask yourself how these details enrich the meaning of the lyrics and contribute to the effects of poetic devices. Music with a fast tempo might make listeners more aware of sound devices like consonance, whereas music with a slow tempo can give listeners more time to think about imagery and symbolism in the lyrics. Record your ideas.
Research the Historical Context
Research the historical, social and political context of the song. Music is often reflective of life experience, so knowledge of world events and prevailing attitudes might affect your interpretation. For example, some people think that Don McLean's "American Pie" is a commentary on changes to American culture at the time, and Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" touches on environmental concerns at the beginning of the modern American environmental movement.
Examine the Album
Study the song within the context of the entire album. Ask yourself whether the album has a theme and how the song you've chosen to analyze contributes to its overall feel. Look at the order of the tunes, and decide if the artist chose a deliberate progression of songs to convey a message. Incorporate your ideas into your analysis, using specific evidence to support your assertions.
Organize Your Notes
Examine the observations you've gathered, and look for a common thread that ties them together. Link your detailed observations to your general impression of the song. Your conclusion about the song will be the thesis for your essay. Choose which specific examples you'll use to support your argument. Be mindful of how long your analysis is expected to be, and choose the number of specific examples you can thoroughly discuss within those parameters.
Write Your First Draft
Draft your paper, and don't forget to use regular conventions of essay writing such as punctuation, spelling and grammar. Also remember to consider any special instructions from your teacher. State your thesis and briefly outline your main arguments in the introduction. Devote the body of your essay to expanding your supporting points. Restate your argument and summarize what your paper discussed in the conclusion. Edit your paper for spelling, grammar and clarity. Have someone else read your essay and provide constructive criticism before writing a final draft.
A professional writer since 2006, Colleen Reinhart has held positions in technical writing and marketing. She also writes lifestyle, health and business articles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Business degree from the University of Waterloo, and a Master's degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Toronto.