(I’m thinking of making this a series, so definitely let us know with the likes and comments if you want more of this type of artist songwriting breakdown in the future.)
Ed Sheeran. Edward Christopher Sheeran. 28-year-old singer-songwriter sensation who if not the definitive biggest musical artist of the decade, has at the very least been one of the top 5 (along with Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars). Of those Top 5, only Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift write or co-write all their own songs, but the real kicker is that Sheeran got his big break latest of all of them, towards the end of 2011, whereas the others were all active in the 2000s.
Ed Sheeran has a down-to-earth folk-pop style and friendly, musician-next-door image to match. This blend of warm personality and relatable songs gives him an extra ring of authenticity, making almost everyone feel like they know him personally on some level. He even took a year off from the spotlight to court and eventually marry his childhood sweetheart, Cherry Seaborn. He almost even seems to fit the “Samwise Gamgee” loyal best friend archetype, to say nothing of his shorter-than-average height, elfin features and distinguishing red hair.
Not only does Sheeran have a definitive musical style, but it does seem to reflect that down-to-earth boy-next-door image of his. So what are some of the musical hallmarks of his songs that create this feeling? What elements would we use to write our very Ed Sheeran song? As a songwriter you want to develop your own particular style, but having said that, sometimes people will approach you directly looking for a song in the style of Ed Sheeran, or Coldplay, or McFly, or Bruno Mars, and you want to be adaptable enough to be able to deliver that.
Ed Sheeran songs range pretty widely from 45 beats per minute up to 168 beats per minute, though there is a general preference or bell curve in the 75-137 bpm range, all of which giving an average tempo of 106. The tempo is actually one of the dynamic ways that he noticeably varies each song from the next on all of his albums, with jumps of around 20-40 bpm between any two given consecutive songs. Because of this wide discrepancy, there really is no right or wrong here. If you want something more upbeat, pick something above 106 bpm. If you want more of an Ed Sheeran ballad, pick something below that.
Ed Sheeran songs tend to follow something similar to the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure we’ve talked about previously in a few other articles. More often than not there will also be a pre-chorus before the chorus that helps add a greater build up to it, that will usually resemble the bridge harmonically in a fundamental way. Also, Ed Sheeran is a guitarist and guitarists do like their intro riffs, and sometimes the bridge will come in the form of a guitar solo, but in those cases it will follow more of a verse/chorus progression and may or may not feature another pre-chorus before the final chorus.
So, if you really want to milk all of these little common features to make it as Sheeran-esque as possible, your song structure would look something like this:
Intro Riff, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus, Guitar Solo, Pre-Chorus, Chorus.
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Just like the tempo earlier, Ed Sheeran really varies the keys from song to song on his albums (because both are well-utilized hacks for creating the appearance of variation on your album) but because he is a guitarist, we can tell certain things from his guitar playing. On the guitar, Sheeran tends to only really play in 3 keys: G, C and D, though he does put capos all along the neck to provide tremendous variation in pitch at the very least. However, because of the interplay between these 3 “sister keys”, there is a lot of chordal overlap and you might even be able to play ALL of his songs with only 8-10 different chords total.
4) Harmonic progression.
Ed Sheeran, during the press tour for his new album, ÷ (pronounced divide), back in 2017, guaranteed (somewhat famously) that any song in the current Top 20 could be played with just four chords (I, IV, V, and vi). In playing his examples in the interview, however, he revealed in his guitar-playing that he considers first inversion variations (variations in which the bass-note of either the tonic or dominant chord plays the third instead of the root note, and that generally act as leading chords to other more stable chords) to be lumped in with their root-note counterparts.
While his statement isn’t technically inaccurate because the notes in a G-chord vs. a G/B-chord are all the same notes, it does require some different chord shapes in practice, and there are some distinct tonal differences between the root and first-inversion variations.
Sheeran actually makes use of 7 different chords in a given key, all diatonic, though not the standard 7 chords in a given musical key. The standard chords in a key are I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii; 3 major chords, 3 minor chords and a diminished chord. In Sheeran’s model, however, he tends to use I, ii, I/iii, IV, V, vi, and V/vii, substituting the 2 “least-attractive-sounding” chords for major inversions. The ii-chord can also be substituted for the IV- or even the vi-chord, so ostensibly, you can muddle your way through basically any diatonic pop song with only 4 chords, if you had to.
Did you catch the significance of that?
He actually uses 5-6 major chords instead of 3, dramatically increasing the sense of stability, resolution and home-ness in his songs. Guy next door, huh?
So even though Ed himself milks that 4-chord rule for all it’s got to give and more, it gives us a really keen insight into the way that he thinks about chord progressions in particular, sticking to 4-chord patterns almost exclusively, but generally using inversions to create different bass-note movements and provide more interest than 4 chords alone can provide.
In layman’s terms, if we want to write an Ed Sheeran song, we’re basically going to use different 4-chord progressions for our different song sections, all still utilizing the I, IV, V, and vi chords, with some sort of first-inversion in there on the I or V chord, though probably not in chorus for stability reasons. Also, we’re probably going to be in the key of G, C or D on guitar, with a capo for vocal placement if necessary.
This is possibly even more ridiculously specific than the chord and key stuff we just talked about. Honestly, my mind is blown by just how many Ed Sheeran songs are based on this one rhythmic displacement motif. I don’t even think I have the words to adequately describe it. I just need to show you.
Shape Of You
Thinking Out Loud
I See Fire
Castle On The Hill
As you can pretty plainly see, there’s this very consistent pattern of rhythmic displacement happening in many of his biggest songs, wherein, with or without a chord change, there are specific accents ahead of the bar, half-bar or sometimes both. With the exception of a few triplet-based ballads (ie. Gimme Love and Perfect), Sheeran’s songs are generally straight, not swung, and almost all feature this sort of rhythmic displacement, with distinct beats on at least the first and fourth 8th-note (or quaver) of each bar.
Even in songs that he writes for other artists (ie. Love Yourself by Justin Bieber) you can find this same rhythmic signature. And what’s more, songs of his that don’t feature this pattern in the guitar or percussion will often have it occur in somewhere in the melody. Seriously. He does it everywhere.
So, one of the best, most distinctive Sheeran tricks you can incorporate into your song is the first and fourth quaver (8th-note) accent. This is the sort of thing that will automatically begin to give you that particular sonic flavor.
Here we find another particular musical signature in Ed Sheeran’s entire body of work. Now, as someone else has already done all the work on this I’m not going to provide all the melodic fragments here, just explain the basic gist of it all. But if you’d like to see and hear his melodic tells personally after you finish reading this article, you can find a video breaking down his melodies here.
Basically though, in exactly the same way that Ed Sheeran accents the 1st and 4th quavers rhythmically, he builds essentially all of his melodies around the root note and major 3rd of the scale/key. The root note gives a sense of stability and home, whereas the major third provides this sort of upward-looking, hopeful, the-future-is-bright-with-possibility-yet-still-safe feeling. These two qualities together actually help complete that guy-next-door image we touched on earlier. They also give us a really good focal point to start with in trying to create our own songs that match his general style.
One of the other tricks Ed Sheeran makes use of regularly is doubling the melody an octave higher or lower. Not only does this distinguish his music because octaves are less conventional as harmonies, but it actually grounds him more as a musical artist. It also pays homage to some of the medieval choral music he would have grown up singing as a boy soprano. He tends to avoid the usual tight-third harmonies that have become more proliferant nowadays.
Last, but certainly not least, the lyrics. This, being the most diverse part of his repertoire, is actually harder to pinpoint down than almost everything else we’ve talked about today. But still, we can derive certain common themes and lyrical devices at play, we just need to also cut ourselves some slack if this part is less convincing.
First of all, his songs are usually romantic. Like most pop music, Sheeran has a lot of relationship songs. These are basically always in the first-person and range far and wide from songs about hooking up to growing old together to unrequited love to loneliness. Thinking Out Loud and Perfect have both previously been claimed as Wedding Song of the year, and their multi-billion YouTube plays reflect that.
But then again, Sheeran, showing himself a little more profound and deep-thinking than a lot of other pop artists and songwriters, has also written songs about addiction, drug abuse, prostitution, miscarriage, dealing with depression, and the negative effects of fame. Deep and depressing stuff for someone who uses so many major chords. So, you really don’t just need to write about love to write like Ed Sheeran.
Wordplay is another big hallmark of an Ed Sheeran song, especially with metaphor and similes. “They say she’s in the Class A Team” is both an obvious reference to the A Team, a group of crime-fighters/heroes, but also to Class A narcotics (heroin, cocaine, etc.). This juxtaposition creates a beautiful melancholic picture of those who are fighting heavy drug addiction as heroes in this epic fight to the death, which is profoundly deepened with lines like, “it’s too cold outside for angels to fly”.
Finally, Sheeran also likes to make use of certain less-conventional, oft-repeated rhyme schemes, reminiscent of his rap/hip-hop influences. For example,
And they say
She’s in the Class A Team
She’s stuck in her daydream
Been this way since eighteen
But lately her face seems
Slowly sinking, wasting
Crumbling like pastries
And they scream
The worst things in life come free to us
Some lyricists have a hard enough time rhyming two lines together, but Ed Sheeran can pull off an almost Eminem-style double-vowel rhyme scheme seven times in a row. As a songwriter, it’s a pretty darn impressive feat. Far from impossible, just very time-consuming.
But if you’ve a mind to write lyrics like Ed Sheeran, it’s just one of several particular tricks and tools that you can employ. And now, given this article as your own personal guidebook, you can write some pretty compelling Ed Sheeran songs yourself at home. With practice.
Recommended Products To Help You Write Songs Like Ed Sheeran.
This book has 15 songs presented simply with chords and lyrics from singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran for guitarists to strum and sing along to: The songs included are, The A Team, All of the Stars, Bloodstream, Don’t, Drunk, Give Me Love, I See Fire, I’m a Mess, Kiss Me, Lego House, One, Photograph, Sing, Small Bump, Thinking Out Loud.