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The Rise of a Pop Culture Icon: What Can Classical Composers Learn from Taylor Swift?

PRESENTED NOVEMBER 4, 2023 at Taylor Swift: The Conference Era at Indiana University Bloomington


Taylor Swift is one of the leading popular music artists of our time. In her many albums, she has explored and blended many musical genres including country music (albums include Taylor Swift and Speak Now), pop (albums include 1989 and Red), and Indie-folk (albums include Lover and folklore/evermore). Despite her great success in the music industry, she never studied songwriting or composing at the post-secondary level, but her popularity arguably ellipses the popularity of any composer in academia. What makes her music, so appealing to a mass audience? Most classical composers struggle to make a living purely through their music and have to rely on other sources of income. Is there anything classical composers can learn from Taylor Swift? In this paper, I will analyze a selection of Taylor Swift’s music using common music analysis techniques including traditional harmonic and modal analysis, Schenkerian analysis, Neo-Riemannian analysis, and others to test its validity and merit in terms of traditional academic metrics. If I find that Taylor Swift’s music is lacking the typical features of successful music, I will investigate why her music is successful and if the traditional way we measure compositional worthiness is lacking. I will finish by considering what would happen if Taylor Swift’s composing and song writing techniques were imposed upon a contemporary classical composition. This approach will allow me to deconstruct the boundaries between commercial popular music and non-commercial high art music and learn what classical composers can gain from analyzing successful popular music.


As most musicians would expect, Taylor Swift began by writing conventional pop songs. Her first album was self-titled Taylor Swift and came out in 2008.[1] In her early songs, she uses basic functional diatonic harmonies in conventional ways. In her song “Our Song,” which comes from her first album, she only uses four different diatonic chords (the tonic, supertonic, subdominant, and dominant) and stays in D major for the entire song. The instrumentation (fiddle, various guitars, banjo, and a simple drum beat) and the swung rhythm of the eighth notes make the song sound firmly within the country music aesthetic. The subject matter of the song is about a simple love story about two lovers in the American south writing down a love song as they sit together in a truck. The simplicity of the story is what makes it appealing to a wide audience. Many people, young and old, can imagine themselves having a similar experience of that of the lovers in the song. The virtuosic-sounding fiddle solo during the bridge of the song adds further appeal, as people are drawn to impressive technical displays.


Taylor Swift does not use many innovative compositional devices in his first album and, as a result, classical composers cannot learn that much from this album. Taylor Swift’s subsequent albums are more innovative and more useful pedagogically to aspiring and established classical composers. Unlike many other artists, Taylor Swift writes most of the songs she records and has evolved as a composer since she released her first album. In “Shake It Off,” which Taylor Swift released in 2014, as part of her 1989 album, she writes ambiguous harmony. There is no definite harmony until 28 seconds into the song and that first chord is not the tonic. The first full chord we hear is a ii7 chord. We cycle through subdominant and supertonic chords until we finally reach a tonic chord at the beginning of the chorus. After this initial tonic chord, the chorus remains firmly within the home key, G major.  Like in “Our Song,” Swift does not modulate in “Shake It Off.”  During the harmonically stable chorus, she emphasizes a 3-2-1 scale degree linear descent within the melody. This linear descent further emphasizes the key of G major.




Despite the stability of the choruses, other sections, such as the opening, the verses, and the bridge, are highly unstable as the result of many factors. In the harmonically ambiguous opening and subsequent verses, Taylor Swift sings a melody with firmly outlines the tonic chord against a counter melody played by a brass synth that is centered around the VII chord, which is not a diatonic chord within a major key, such as the key of this piece. The tension between Taylor’s diatonic vocal melody and the non-diatonic synth countermelody catches the listener’s attention and sets up the listener to feel a sense of relief when they reach the chorus, which is firmly within the tonic harmony. The verses follow much of the same pattern as the choruses. In the bridge section, Swift abandons pitch and gently raps against a drum beat. This abandonment of pitch reflects the change in mood of the text. In this section, Swift raps about an instant when her ex-boyfriend brings his new girlfriend to meet her. She quickly moves from this tension filled bridge section to the uplifting pre-chorus and chorus where she declares she is going to “shake it off.” The predominant and subdominant chords of the pre-chorus alert us to the return of the tonic harmony and give us a sense of closure as the song finishes by repeating the chorus material.



“Shake It Off” is a perfect example of how to use harmonic ambiguity and the absence of pitch and its subsequent reintroduction to create tension and a more satisfying eventual resolution. It is not by chance that this song is ubiquitously well-known and highly commercially successful. The same principles can be applied to a classical composition. In theory, a contemporary classical composer could apply the same proportions of harmonic ambiguity versus harmonic stability to their composition to create a successful piece.


Swift’s merging of genres, such as pop and hip hop in “Shake It Off,” is also inspiring. Merging popular genres with contemporary classical music may be a good way for composers to make their music more appealing to a wider audience. This merging of styles is arguably a primary reason why Taylor Swift is so successful!


Taylor Swift delays the introduction of the tonic chord in other songs to achieve the same initial tension that grabs the listeners’ attention. In her song “Red,” composed and released in 2012, she does not introduce the tonic chord, E major triad, until the end of the first phrase of the chorus, “Losing him was blue, like I’d never known.” This is the same pattern we saw in “Shake It Off.” As in “Shake It Off,” the initial harmonies in “Red” are mainly functionally subdominant with the occasional dominant triad. This delay in establishing the tonic combined with the monotone nature of the vocal line creates tension. Swift also sometimes lowers the leading tone to D natural for dramatic effect. Arguably, during the opening section, the instrumental lines are much more melodic and filled with a greater variety of intervallic patterns than Swift’s vocal line. This compositional approach is reminiscent of a recitative featuring an obligato instrumental line in an opera or an oratorio. When the tonic triad is reached, and the chorus finally enters Swift’s vocal writing is much more melodic and features leaps and interesting melodic contouring. Again, like in the two previous songs, Swift does not modulate and stays firmly within E major despite beginning with harmonically ambiguous chords. Unlike in some of her earlier songs, Swift experiments with add4 dominant chords. This chord adds more variety to her writing and takes her style further away from the country music genre.  


In addition to being a creative and continually evolving composer, as seen in the analysis so far, Swift is also a skilled poet and lyricist. In the song “Red,” she moves away from the more innocent subject matter of her earlier country music style songs. She cleverly uses colors to describe the stages of grief she experienced when she lost a lover. She is skilled with using metaphor to depict her fated love affair. She describes her love for him as “…driving a Maserati down a dead-end street.”[2] A Maserati is a powerful, luxury Italian sports car, so driving it down a dead street would mean that the car would never be able to show its full potential in the same way her relationship never reached its full potential. Overall, the lyrics in this song are dark and thought provoking. Swift depicts much more than a simplistic story about country lovers, as she did in “Our Song.”


Swift’s evolution as a composer and lyricist did not end with “Red” and “Shake It Off.” She released “Anti-Hero” in 2022.[3] This song is much darker than previous songs. Swifts writes lyrics about her mental illness, her struggles with narcissism, her hypothetical scheming children from the future, and her murder by those children. Swift uses minimalistic harmony to portray the mental illness of the protagonist of the song. Throughout the song, she only uses four chords (Asus2, E, B, and C#m7) that are repeated as a continuous loop. The continuous repetition of these four chords builds tension and makes it hard to find the boundary between the verses and the choruses, further adding tension to the song. The looping of the harmony paired with the increasing darkness of the lyrics depicts the character’s mental state spiraling out of controls and an increasingly more sinister place. Swift also never fully establishes  E major due to the deceptive cadence (V-vi) at the end of the four-chord loop. We expect to hear a tonic chord after the dominant chord but are instead given a submediant chord. The monotone melody also adds to the suspense and draws our attention further towards the stagnant nature of the chords. In some ways, Swift’s stagnant harmonic language in “Anti-Hero” is more reminiscent of the harmony in a minimalist classical composition rather than the functional harmony we normally see in pop music. Swift’s willingness to move away from functional harmony for the purposes of  portraying her intended story truly shows how innovative she is as a composer.



Both aspiring and established classical composers can learn much from Taylor Swift and her evolution as a composer. She began mainly writing mainly music from the country music genre with functional harmony and evolved conceptually as a composer over the past 15 years. First, she experimented with withholding the tonic until the chorus and obscuring the pitch and tonal center of her music. She progressed to incorporating other styles of music into her songs, such as rap, as can be seen in “Shake It Off.” Along with her compositional innovations came more complex poetic devices. By 2012, in her song “Red,” Swift had outgrown simple stories about country lovers and progressed to using complex metaphors to portray the deeper and darker aspects of love. By the 2020s, she completely outgrew the traditional mainstream pop song model and started incorporating much darker subject matter, such as death and mental illness, more reminiscent of thematic material from rock music than pop music. In order to tackle this subject matter, Swift used innovative minimalist harmonies that were stylistically far from her beginnings as a country music vocalist.


Few classical composers successfully incorporate so many different styles into their music as Taylor Swift. Part of the reason Swift appeals to such a large audience is due to this fusion of styles. Furthermore, Swift uses harmonies and the norms and expectations they induce in the listener to depict the mood of the lyrics. Sometimes seemingly simple compositional devices are the most powerful tools for communicating with an audience. If classical composers communicated their messages as clearly and directly as Taylor Swift communicates her message, they would attract larger audiences. Taylor Swift is a woman composer, as she writes all of her own songs. She shows that a woman composer can be one of the most powerful voices in music and in the world in general. Her music touches every household in America and many other countries. She has achieved every composer’s deepest dreams.

I will end by considering how Taylor Swift’s compositional principles can be applied to creating a classical composition. A piece written using the previously discussed techniques would contain a fusion of styles, some popular and some more exotic. A classical composer might choose to use sprechstimme or recitative instead of rap for the equivalent of the bridge section in their piece. A classical composition in the style of Taylor Swift would also likely be minimalistic in style, with a limited number of carefully chosen chords. The lyrics would be self-written by the composer and explore the deepest and darkest aspects of being alive. Finally, a good classical composition, written using Taylor Swift’s compositional style, would delay the establishment of the tonic or the key center until the focal point of the piece. During my conference presentation, I presented a classical composition written using these principles to test the potential advantages of using Taylor Swift’s compositional approach.

 

Bibliography

Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff, Anti-Hero [audio CD and sheet music]. Nashville, TN: Songs of Universal Inc., TASRM Publishing, Song ATV Songs LLC and Ducky Donath Music, Universal Music Publishing International, Universal/MCA Music Ltd. and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, 2022.

 

Taylor Swift, Red [audio CD and sheet music]. Nashville, TN: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC and Taylor Swift Music, 2012.

 

Taylor Swift, Shake It Off [audio CD and sheet music]. Nashville, TN: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC and Taylor Swift Music, 2014.

 

Swift, Taylor. Taylor Swift [audio CD and sheet music ]. Nashville, TN: Big Machine, 2008.


[1] Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift [audio CD and sheet music]. Nashville, TN: Big Machine, 2008.

[2] Taylor Swift, Red [audio CD and sheet music]. Nashville, TN: Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC and Taylor Swift Music, 2012.

[3] Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff, Anti-Hero [audio CD and sheet music]. Nashville, TN: Songs of Universal Inc., TASRM Publishing, Song ATV Songs LLC and Ducky Donath Music, Universal Music Publishing International, Universal/MCA Music Ltd. and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, 2022.

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