We continue the series in which we analyze the songwriting techniques of successful artists. In previous articles, we wrote about the songwriting technique of Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande, and Max Martin. This time we will discuss how Taylor Swift writes songs, and what chords she uses in her songs. From this article, you will learn why Taylor Swift’s songwriting is so unique. As I mentioned in the previous articles, today’s hit songs are constructed not by one person, but by many songwriters. Usually, it takes four or five songwriters to write a hit song. But let’s see how Swift’s songs are different from other artists’ songs.
I analyzed 36 of Swift’s most successful songs from 2006 to 2021. But since her songwriting has changed over the years, especially from 2014, I split her songwriting career into two eras. Songs from 2006 to 2013 and songs from 2014 to 2021.
From 2006, she wrote her songs mostly alone or together with Liz Rose who is a country songwriter. And of course, we can hear this in the instrumentation of these songs. We can hear acoustic instruments like banjo, and country style, probably played by real musicians. In these years, her choice of chords was very limited. She used only 4 chords almost all the time, and it was the same four chords, those infamous four chords: I, IV, V, VIm. Until 2014, almost all the songs were built from these four chords with a few exceptions.
Her songwriting style started to change when she started to work with other songwriters and producers in 2012. The first song she worked on with Max Martin is “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in 2012. This song was kind of a transition for her. First of all, it was still containing acoustic instruments, like a guitar, and it was still containing only those four chords. But it was already a shift to EDM. This was her first song with a “loopable” chord progression, which is a characteristic of EDM.
The song “22” was the next one that she made together with Max Martin. This was an even bigger shift in the direction of EDM. They still used an acoustic guitar in the verse, but the chorus is very EDM style with those aggressive synth sounds. And they still used the same four chords in this song.
From 2014 to 2021
It was really 2014 when she made a big change in her style with the release of “Shake It Off“. This was the next song that she made together with Max Martin. This was the first time we could feel that she made a really big change. First of all, this song is completely EDM style. While we can hear acoustic instruments like acoustic drums, saxophone, trumpets, these are virtual instruments, using acoustic samples. So it’s not played by actual musicians, but they are programmed in a DAW.
Secondly, she dropped those infamous four chords the first time. Before 2014, she used the same four chords in almost all the songs. But in “Shake It Off”, they used only three chords: I – IIm – IV. There are no “V” or “VIm” chords in the song!
Thirdly, this song has a loopable chord progression. They used the same three chords in the same order throughout the entire song. While she still rarely uses loopable chord progressions, she almost never used one before 2014, but since then, she uses loopable chord progressions a little bit more. Songs like “The Man”, “You Need To Calm Down”, and “Out Of The Woods” have loopable chord progressions. (And keep in mind that “Shake It Off” is still her number one most streamed song.)
Number of chords
Another big change she made in 2014 is that she started to use more chords in her songs. Before 2014, she almost always used only 4 chords, but from 2014, she used 5 and even 6 chords much more times. Look at these charts below to see the difference. As you can see, from 2014 she used 5 chords in a song at least as many times as she used 4 chords. And sometimes she used even 6 chords in one song. This means that her songs become more diverse in terms of chord progressions.
The “IIm” chord
Another change we can see in Taylor Swift’s songwriting is that she almost never used the “IIm” chord before 2014, but she started to use it more often later. “Shake It Off” was the first song to incorporate that chord, and since then, 45% of her songs included this chord! So instead of using only those infamous four chords, she started to use the “IIm” more often, which is the reason why many of her newer songs include 5 or 6 chords.
This is very similar to what we have seen in songs that are written by Max Martin. In fact, maybe he was the one who influenced her in this. Max Martin uses this chord in 60% of his songs.
The tonic “I” chord
When we analyzed songs from artists like Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, or Max Martin, we have seen that these artists were using the “VIm” and the “IV” chords most of the time. This is very different from what we can see in Taylor Swift’s songs. Her number one favorite chord is the tonic “I” chord. In fact, I haven’t found any songs that don’t include this chord. She uses the tonic “I” chord in 100% of her songs. So if you want to write songs like Taylor Swift, you should definitely use the tonic “I” chord. Interestingly, the “VIm” chord is only at fourth place for her.
If you want to learn more about her songwriting style, check out our songwriting course. We show more songwriting techniques from Taylor Swift, including how she creates melodies, hooks, and powerful rhythms in her songs.
The secret pattern behind successful songs
Get the eBook for $4.99
About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.