What makes a good song?

Aaron Cheney

Favorite Chord: C 6/9
I, like you, have listened to a million songs. Maybe more. Everytime I rate songs on garageband.com, I amazed by two things: 1: How many zillions of songwriters there are out there and, 2: How much of the music on there is really not that good. It's not that it's bad, it's just that it's not good.
Using garageband.com has really given me a glimpse into what it must be like for some A/R guy at a record company, listening to a zillion tapes a day, all by aspiring songwriters, 99% of whom are writing songs that more or less sound like everyone else's songs.
It has really caused me to ask myself what it must take to make a song rise to the top of the heap. Now, I'm not talking production or star power; I'm talking about sheer songwriting power. What does it take?
Some of my favorite songwriters include the Beatles, Sting, Paul Simon, and James Taylor.
At the risk of rambling, here are some of my conclusions: It takes great metaphors, lyrically. It takes a memorable and catchy chorus. It takes dynamics or some kind of tension and release or contrast. And it takes some element of surprise, wether harmonically, structurally, or stylistically. And I know it must take many more things which I can't quantify.
I pride myself in being a fairly decent songwriter. However, my experience of late has caused me to really reflect on this. Do my songs really have what it takes to reach beyond the average?
I'm interested in what other people think it takes to make a great song, and what their approach is to writing something that meets their criteria for a great song.
Aaron Cheney
http://www.aaroncheney.com
 

BigBee

New member
Hi Aaron,

It is very simple, the magic word is individuality. Some have it more then others (like the guys you mention). You have got to be at least slightly different and that is something you/we cannot learn. The craft of songwriting is just a means to let your personality shine true. And being a good craftsman is not good enough I am afraid (IMHO).

Cheers
BigBee
 

rats

New member
I disagree with Bigbee wholeheartedly. Individuality is important, and of the essence, but because you may not be the most original thing in town doesn't mean you can't be a musical genius. I think a lot of what we see of our favorite artists is hype and marketing, when in fact the stars are very normal people. Musicianship is a craft, and craftsmanship is what it's all about, so you can succeed on your craftsmanship. I think some of the people Aaron listed as his favorites were basically boring individuals that wrote great songs. Take James Taylor, have you ever seen him interviewed(ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ).
Aaron I think you're on the right track by listening to music and realizing what the difference between good and not bad music is, maybe you can then find that in your own creations.

"It takes great metaphors, lyrically. It takes a memorable and catchy chorus. It takes dynamics or some kind of tension and release or contrast. And it takes some element of surprise, wether harmonically, structurally, or stylistically"

Right there it is. Find yourself, your essence, what makes you special then elaborate on that.

Now if I could only follow my own advise I'd be in business.
 

RockinRobert

New member
A good tune is a good tune....is a good tune. If YOU think a song is good, then it is. Trouble is, we're all different, and if you try to justify "good" by commercial success or potential, then it's just a numbers game and trying to hit the highest average. The crap that is being shoved down the kids throats these days is horrible from an artists standpoint. It's all electronic programming and not much human emotion...BackStreet Boys, N'SYNC, Brittany...etc. But they sell billions of records and billions of people think it's good music...and to them, it is.
My point is, make music from your heart and you will make good songs. You may never make a damn dime from it, but I like to fantasize it out this way. The greatest artists are never recognized in their own time. Maybe if you keep on keepin on, someday someones gonna discover your music and it may mean a whole lot to millions of people. Or maybe it just might mean something priceless to a friend or loved one. THAT is why I make music. I gave up on the fortune and fame game back in the 80's. I just want to leave something behind, kinda like having children to carry on for you...your music really can live forever. Think about it.
Sorry to get so deep ;) bOb
 

Maffoo

New member
Bob, you said it. If you just put it out there that's what it's about. When I look around the real world( you know the one apart from T.V.) for the most part musicians are poor, and I've heard the best sounds come from them.
How many times have you played a new riff or sang some lyrics and that was it. Gone Gone Gone. Too bad you couldn't capture it and put it on display at the zoo!
 

Aaron Cheney

Favorite Chord: C 6/9
Well, here's my take on some of this:
I think individuality is more a performer's trait than a songwriter's trait, although I will admit that they are often very closely tied to one another. The Beatles for example wrote many different kinds of songs in every style imaginable. The only thing that gives them any cohesion is the fact that they were all performed by the Beatles (supposedely! :D ). If all those songs were performed by different artists in there respective genres, who would ever guess that they were really written by the same two guys? And yet many would still be absolutely great songs.
Sometimes a performer's individuality can actually overcome a very average song and turn it in to something great. Take Hendrix's performance of "All Along the Watchtower" for example.
Perhaps songwriting and performance are inextricably linked to each other.
As far as taste goes, we do all prefer different things. But wether one happens to like country music or not, I think one can still discern a well written country song from a poorly written one. I will admit there is some area between the two extremes that would strictly be accountable to a person's taste.
But the one thing that has been discussed here that I must weigh in on is this: I definitely do think that a great song can be crafted by hard work, perserverance, and experience. The songs I write now are so much better than the songs I wrote 5 years ago (in my opinion), and I like to think it is because I have learned by listening, working, thinking, and observing the work of other, more experienced songwriters. A songwriter can improve his skill through experience just as any other craftsman can.
Aaron
http://www.aaroncheney.com
 

rats

New member
...and the irony is that although Aaron posted the question, he was the one most qualified to answer it. But maybe the question was intended for an answer on a more personal level, maybe "what makes MY song good?". It's easy to pop in Sgt. Pepper and notice some great songwriting, and equally talk shit about the backass boys, but when it comes to your own songs, it can be a little more tricky. Who's to know if the song you've ben toiling over all weekend or all month is good? You've listened to it 1,000 times in every combination of drums, guitar, bass, then drums and vocals, then just guitar, then just the click track, you've tweaked the 2k on the high-hat just the way you like it. Maybe the hair on you banck of your neck isn't quite standing up the way it did when you first played that E-A-D on your acoustic in your bedroom with those lyrics you thought up while driving home from the bar after getting the drink thrown on you from your ex-girlfriend after she saw you out with the stripper last weekend. So at this point how can you tell? Maybe that great song fell off track in the writing process and maybe you shouldn't have smoked that last joint. So now what? Well you could post it at the MP3 clinic, but you'll only get technical advice. You can show your friends, but they wont tell you what they really think, especially if it really sucks. You can post it at garageband.com if you're feeling lucky, but you'll be really lucky if you get a review with comments, and luckier if they are honest. So that is the real dilemma if you ask me. All you can do is go on your best judgement, so try and not be too stoned or drunk.
 

jvasey

New member
IMHO, it boils down to this.
A good song makes people feel something. Unless of course your into pop music, in which case "A good song makes people buy something."
Jeff
PS, I hope some of you are more economical with you lyrics than your ng posts.
 

MAC2

New member
IMHO....if you can feel the emotion that inspired the creation of the work while listening to the song...its a good song. RockinRobert said it well: "make music from your heart and you will make good songs".
 

Aaron Cheney

Favorite Chord: C 6/9
Rats is right.
All my good feed back comes from people that would tell me a song was good even if it sucked.
So does that mean the only feed back you can ever trust is the negative? I must admit that's what I tend to do, and I end up being too critical.
I often have to force myself to just stop working on a song, just for the sake of having a finished song. Otherwise I would just keep re-writing it forever.
Aaron
http://www.aaroncheney.com
 

Maffoo

New member
Most of my expeience come from the fine art world and making a good painting is a lot like a song. Composition is important, but what seperates the masters or a selling artist from the rest is the finishing touches, those few last touches of color that make the painting come alive or 'POP'.
These Masters now how to finish a painting without over working it. If you get stumped, something is wrong with the composition, take a break from it and come back in a day, week,month or whatever it takes, your more apt to solve the problem.
 

James HE

a spoonfull weighs a ton
tention, honesty, empathy

Welcome Aaron! Glad to have you aboard!
You mentioned a song must have some sort of tention and release. I agree with you %100. We listen to and play music mostly to get some sort of release. To get to that release there must be tention. Every form of music has that in some form or another. Think about the inherant tention in a I-IV-V progression, but we don't always hear it cause we are so accustomed to hearing that progression. Somewhere along the line the Blues got most of the life sucked out of it, where did the tention go! Most of what I hear today considered "blues" I consider "easy listening"
I consider a lot of music "easy listening," if I've heard something like it 10,000 times, I don't have to put any effort into listening to it. Most things on the Radio are. When I hear Creed or Four Doors Down, it's Yawn.... The only sort of tention I feel when I listen to those bands is because I feel embarassed for them! hah! then I get a release by saying how bad they suck! They suck! Not only are they mediocore songs, but it's a mediocore performance as well, all made to shine most mediocritly with modern production techniques. no substance.
I hate to use Examples like this, cause personal opinions may cause someone to dismiss what I'm saying, but, Take MatchBoX 20. The songs are ok, some of them good, but what's his name voice envokes an amout of honesty that makes it happen. Creed may be being honest about their faith or whatever, but it's all hidden in that "my leather pants are sooo cool" voice. freakin poseur.
You have to convey honesty to write a good song. two words... Ani Difranco. She's got it, she makes it happen. She dosen't need leather pants to rock. She's made her own vocabulary, her own musical language. That is one thing in common with all great songwriters, they have taken their experiences, their limitations, their joy, their love of the art and made a vocabulary out of it. And that vocabulary is always changing, always growing...

-jhe
 

CyanJaguar

New member
James He took the words right out of my mouth.

A good song does not require any effort to listen to it.

---------------
RockinRobert was rocking when he said that

a good tune is a good tune....is a good tune.

----------
Jvasey said it when he said that a good song makes people feel something.
------------

Let me add a little to what the others have said.

a good tune is good the first time you hear it

and a really good tune makes gives you this energy that makes you want to rip something apart , or sing a high c at 105 dbs or something. Kind of like the feeling you get when you see Vince Carter do the impossible during the slam dunk contest.
Something like ADRENALINE.

Too many times I have stumbled upon a new song, maybe at a friends house or something. I am trying to talk to my friend, but this song is touching my subconscious. After a minute, I just burst out,

"wow, this song is great". THat song goes on to be a hit.
A good song, arouses most of the same feelings in most people , regardless of genre.

good exmples of good songs that I heard and went on to be great hits are:

Seal: Kiss from a rose.
Faith hill: Breathe
Andrea Bocelli: Sogno
Creed : With arms wide open
Macy gray: I try
Toni Braxton: Spanish Guitar
N'sync: Bye Bye Bye
Matchbox 20: bent

some songs on this board have also aroused those same (smash hit) feelings(the ones I can remember)

Kabudokan: Addiction
Cody young: How does it feel
Hard2Hear: Runaway
Miker73: Stumbling . Also "Wisdom"
Broken window: I forget the name of the instrumental
composition
Jon X: Canigo

TO me, these songs don't sound formulaeic. It sounds like someone dreamed a dream, and a song was born
 

rats

New member
Hot Air

What makes a song good?

What makes a man great?

What makes a fool?

One man's trash is another man's treasure. Sorry for the cliches. I think I'm pretty cool when I confidently state the fact that INSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, Brittny Spears and Ricky Martin are all showboats, and lack any artistic substance. But they will win awards, and record sales, and fortune, and I'll be wrong, but right in saying so.

So I'll find genius in the Butthole Surfers and Beck.

And you'll find genius in Mr. Bungle and Silver Apples.

And He'll find Genius in Enrique Iglesias.

Maybe the real genius is Crackhead Joe who plays the blues at open mike night for drinks?
 

CyanJaguar

New member
Re: Hot Air( what makes a hit a hit)

rats said:

One man's trash is another man's treasure. Sorry for the cliches. I think I'm pretty cool when I confidently state the fact that INSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, Brittny Spears and Ricky Martin are all showboats, and lack any artistic substance. But they will win awards, and record sales, and fortune, and I'll be wrong, but right in saying so.


rats, they might be showboats, but they do have good songs. They didnot write the songs, but some of the songs are still good and noteworthy.


N'sync : bye bye bye
Backstreet Boys: I'll never break your heart
Brittney Spears: Hit me baby one more time
Ricky Martin: Livin Lavida loca


By the way, have you heard the new? backstreet boys song. that has the phrase "my battery is low

that song sounds like hit me baby one more time, but it is still off the hook.
 

Gidge

Lapdance Test Dummy
James,

I hear tons of honesty when I hear a Creed song....you may not relate to it, or like it, but I can feel where he was coming from....How would you feel if you poured out your emotions and feelings and threw them out for the whole world to see, and have someone call it mediocre because they didnt like it...music is an art and is purely subjective...as an artist you should at least respect that...shouldn't you?......
 

lazyboy

New member
Gidge:

I realize I'm splitting hairs here, but what the hell--makes good conversation right? Nothing personal...

Anyway, only in pop music (which can only loosely be considered art) has there been a strong movement that suggests that art is purely subjective. The kinds of things pop music folks say about their art are often notions of 100 years antiquity to the rest of the art world.

You're certainly right that you're stretching your neck out when you release something so close to you for public consumption. I'm not sure that its really all that important to respect what they are doing on a musical level. I think its important, though, to be able to articulate why not. For instance, the somewhat inhuman growl of that dude from Creed, sounds theatrical and artificial to me. Therefore, there is a mismatch between his earnest lyrics and their delivery causing the listener question which is host and which is parasite.
 

jvasey

New member
Gidge, with regards to Creed, I don't doubt their conviction to the songs, but guys get a handle on the dynamics. With Arms Wide Open is a perfect example of a lyrically very tender song played with the subtlety of Michael Bolton with his hair on fire. Like a said earlier, a good song should make you feel something, with songs like that all I feel is embarrassed for them. Kinda like I felt for Elton John when I heard about the Grammys.

Jeff
 

Tim Brown

New member
Aaron Cheney said:
I, like you, have listened to a million songs. Maybe more. Everytime I rate songs on garageband.com, I amazed by two things: 1: How many zillions of songwriters there are out there and, 2: How much of the music on there is really not that good. It's not that it's bad, it's just that it's not good.
I pride myself in being a fairly decent songwriter. However, my experience of late has caused me to really reflect on this. Do my songs really have what it takes to reach beyond the average?
I'm interested in what other people think it takes to make a great song, and what their approach is to writing something that meets their criteria for a great song.
Aaron Cheney
http://www.aaroncheney.com

Hi Aaron,

I agree there is a ton of "shit" out there as far as what passes for songwriting.
I can truly Appreciate "pop" music; I don't listen to it (I'm a Metal and Hard Rock fan), but I can Appreciate "Livin Lavida Loca" -I know, everybody hates it-but how many of you hear it, and go around with that hook in your head? From a pop perspective that's what you need.

Personally, I think what makes a good song, is writing material that everyone can relate to.

For Example, one of the best songs I've heard on this board (maybe and probably THE best) is Mr Lip's song "Wait". Man, it's just a killer song!
I still think he either needs to try to push it himself and re-record it with a band, or get it into the hands of somebody like Bon Jovi or Don Dokken (yes, that IS what it reminds me of).
No, I'm not a Bon Jovi fan but He was definitely ahead of the "Power Ballad League"; but because I AM a fan of the infamous Power Ballad - the one thing that set the good Hard Rock bands apart from the rest, it reminds me of that.....before anyone has a tizzy, I'm a neo-classical head (Blackmore and Malmsteen are two of my favorites, along with my friend James Byrd, who was in the band Fifth Angel in the 80's, and now has "Atlantis Rising")
I mean, if it's a great song, it's a great song-no matter what Genre.
I must be getting old, because I am starting to notice that I like the Female Country singers better than the "rock" that's out there (Yes, I admit I WOULD rather hear Shania Twain or Faith Hill over all the idiotic drivel on my local "Alternative Rock" station ( "Alternative to WHAT?"_it's the freaking Mainstream!) The only time we have any hard rock on the radio here-is a show caled "Hairclub for men"-and they play 80's metal from noon to 1:00 PM.

But, I say-it's being able to write material that has a hook, that everybody can sing along to, and anybody can relate to...that's what I think makes a great song.

Manson, Korn, Limp Bizquick? that craps not Metal!
Even though I will admit I like the band Buck Cherry just for the "AC/DC" type of sound.

Tim
 

LI Slim

New member
that which expressess the unexpressable

I agree with much of what has been said. But I want to approach it at a slightly different angle.

Aaron, I think the "craftsmanship" features that you list are good examples of what a good popular (I'm using the broad definition of "popular") song contains. (And I think that it helps to have a lot of musical skill and knowledge; let's not sell that short.) And I think those who have said that it has to affect people are on target. What connects these things and makes the song special is that the song comes from a place of self expression; that there's something basic, honest, whole, clear.........whatever, that there's this essence to it that communicates something beyond individual words or notes. I don't know whether this is a soul thing or a God thing or a chemical thing or what, but I do know it's something more than perfecting craft items.

At bottom, that's what I want to do with my music. To use my musical skills (such as they are) to truly express myself, and have that really heard and accepted by others. We love music because of the way it communicates things.

Aaron, it really is amazing how truly mediocre alot of the garageband stuff sounds. I think it's a combination of some people being grandiose, others just liking to be out there without really giving a shit, others having a true vision that they are having trouble fully realizing but wanting to try anyway (I fit into this category to a certain extent), and sometimes we don't listen carefully enough to give people a chance.

Thanks for starting this one....
 
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