Holistic Songwriting: The Science of Songwriting

Written by Friedemann Findeisen 

Many years ago, when I first heard about Max Martin’s melodic math, I was immediately transfixed. So you’re telling me the guy who has written the most No. 1 hit songs in the history of modern pop music is following a formula? Well, whatever it was, I needed to get my stubby little fingers on it, pronto. 

And so I did what you’d expect: I watched every interview I could find, saw every YouTube video, read every single one of Martin’s books and listened to every podcast interview he’d ever given. Or … actually, none of that. It was the 1990s. We had barely just gotten out of the dark ages. We didn’t even know what an mp3 was yet.

There was nothing. The information was out there, somewhere — but I had no access to it. My research over the coming years felt a little bit like asking Alexa for the meaning of life (“I have added Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life to your Amazon cart”) — I never got the answers I needed. 

In an attempt to learn the rules, I got a Bachelor of Music and read just about every book on songwriting ever written. But the more I studied, the more I realized that it was entirely possible that nobody really could teach me these rules. Not the books I read, not the professors that taught me and — could it be? — not even Martin himself. I kept hearing the same old platitudes again and again: Repeat stuff, put your highest notes in the chorus and whatever you do, keep it simple (or KISS) because songwriters love KISS and — hee-hee — you’re stupid. 

Naturally, as the world’s most German songwriter, this frustrated me (insert loud Arnold Schwarzenegger roar here). Everyone kept talking about how formulaic modern pop music was, but no one actually studied what these formulas were. Wouldn’t you want to know what these rules are, if only to avoid them in your own writing?

So I took matters into my own hands: I’ve been analyzing songs and experimenting with techniques for almost two decades now. In 2015, I released my later-turned-bestseller The Addiction Formula, which explains one of the most widely used formulas in modern songwriting. It’s now being used in music schools and conservatories worldwide. I loved writing it because, like my best songs, it surprised me. This is when I knew that I wanted to teach songwriting full-time. 

What really put me and my songwriting school Holistic Songwriting on the map was a series of videos I made for the eponymously named YouTube channel. In the “Artists Series,” I analyze and compare artists like Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd and Nirvana, asking this question: How do these people make us feel a certain way? The answer, of course, is way broader than just songwriting. In my Adele video, I talk about everything from the lighting in her music videos to the outfits her band wears on stage. 

Long gone are the days where songwriters could write a lead sheet and be done with it. In 2021, our job description has changed. Now we are mixing and mastering engineers, we are producers, performers and band leaders. Nobody listens through a bad mix, bad performances or bad arrangements anymore, so we have become specialists at creating that band sound, that groove, that melody that sits just right. In 2021, we’re not just writing songs, we determine how the artists we write for are perceived by their fans. They act as protagonists in the stories we write and the worlds we build. In 2021, we must look at the bigger picture. We need to become holistic songwriters.

Keeping that in mind: Is it me, or are songwriting teachers obsessed with harmony and lyrics? As if that was the only thing that makes our listeners feel something in a song. Why is there no music theory for groove, structure or melody? What about creative production and sound design? Functionally, using a plug-in like auto-tune or pitch shifter is similar to telling your vocalist to belt or sing falsetto, and yet songwriters still don’t think about production when they write. In my mid 20s, this got me so frustrated that I decided to do something about it. 

My answer: Holistic Songwriting Academy. In three 12-week trimesters, my students and I dive deeply into groove (arranging the rhythm section), pitch (harmony and melody) and story (image, structure and lyrics). It’s a dense course — my students tell me it’s harder than law school, so sign up at your own risk — but you’ll see songwriting in a completely different light by the end of it.

I never did get direct access to Martin’s brain. But as it turned out, that was a good thing. In fact, maybe the thing that fascinates me most about songwriting is that it still mostly happens behind closed doors. It’s a secret art that only few people know how to practice well, a puzzle that we all have just but a few pieces to.

Cover Photo of Max Martin, Photo Credit Axel Öberg

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