When I look at all the songs out there that I really love, I start to notice some patterns, some things that a lot of them have in common. Not consistently, and there are certainly exceptions to the rule, but there seems to be a list of musical attributes that a song can contain that end up really speaking to me. And there are hundreds of good songs out there that don’t really contain these, or don’t contain most of them, but almost all the songs that really stick out to me have at least some of them.
So what do I think makes a song good?
1. Singable melody
I sing along to music. A lot. I like being able to actually sing the melody — some vocal lines are just too all over the place to easily follow. Plus, it’s the melody that really makes the song, it’s the thing that’s going to get stuck in your head, that you’ll be humming to yourself as you walk down the street. It should be something memorable, something catchy, something interesting and full.
Example: Eurhythmics, When Tomorrow Comes
2. Vocal harmonies
Right along with the vocal melody is vocal harmony. I don’t know what it is about a second (or third, or fourth) voice building on the melody, but I love it. It’s the blending of two people, it’s adding to augment, it’s the whole being greater than the sum of each. The theory of harmony fascinates me, and it can just be so pleasing to the ear. It’s perfect for adding strength in a chorus, as a song builds, or to emphasize a single line.
Example: Barenaked Ladies, If I had $1000000 (specifically, the chorus)
This also applies to duets, especially when they go back and forth and then fall into harmonies for a chorus.
Example: Wicked (the musical), For Good
3. Building structure
A good song should have the same structure as a good story. Whatever level it starts at, it should build to the chorus, and build throughout the song to the finale.
Ideally, each new verse should have a little more than the last verse, and build again to a chorus. If the climax leaves me speechless, all the better.
Examples: Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven; Coldplay, Fix You
4. Thought-provoking lyrics
One thing I dislike is an otherwise good song that has meaningless filler lyrics. A song is one of the best ways to express emotion, to affect the listener in some way, and the musicality does a lot of that, but the lyrics are one more opportunity to do so. The lyrics might not be something you notice on your first listen, but they can hold the key to a much deeper understanding of the music on subsequent listens. If the lyrics are meaningless, the song as a whole loses most of its weight.
Example: Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms
Especially the cello. There’s something about a rock power trio being backed by sweeping strings that just pulls at my… um, heartstrings. Just having them in the background, keeping the chords, can be enough. But when they occasionally come to the foreground, play an augmenting theme, or are the bedrock for the rising climax, they really meet their potential. Contrasting to that, the voice of a single cello can work such emotional wonders (it’s probably the most beautiful instrument in existence) without the power of a whole section. One lone crooning voice backing up the music… ooh, it gives me shivers.
Examples: (string section) Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb; Coldplay, Viva la Vida; The Beatles, Yesterday; (cello) Buckethead, Tales of Dim Eden; Barenaked Ladies, Lovers in a Dangerous Time (ok, that’s a string bass, but it achieves the same effect)
6. Atypical instrumentation
Specifically (we’re talking rock/pop here, mainly), flute, banjo, and bagpipes. And things like that. Yes, bagpipes. All those instruments you don’t normally hear in rock music. The addition of the other can add a whole new layer to a song, and in the case of instruments like the flute, can be incredibly beautiful. Also, it’s just cool.
Example: Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick
7. Orchestral arrangements
Above and beyond having strings, or the occasional odd instrument, just having a full orchestra back a rock band is one of the coolest things ever. The raw power of such a large group is charging. The strings, the winds, the brass, the crescendoing cymbals and rolling timpanis…
Example: Spirit of the West, And if Venice is Sinking (backed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra)
8. Cover songs that are sufficiently different
When some people cover a song, it sounds pretty much like the original but with different people playing. This, to me, is somewhat pointless. Why would I listen to the cover version when I can listen to the original? But if the cover band really takes the opportunity to explore the full potential of an established song, they can create something truly special, a major variation, and sometimes it’s even better than the original. That’s what cover songs are all about.
Examples: Barenaked Ladies, Lovers in a Dangerous Time; Big Sugar, Dear Mr. Fantasy; Annie Lennox, I Can’t Get Next to You
9. Good parts for all instruments
All the instruments that play in a song should be there for a reason, and they should be doing something more interesting than the same couple of notes over and over. This kind of complexity isn’t normally apparent on the first listen of a song — you just hear the main melodies, the parts that really stand out. But on subsequent listens, this is what can make a song worth listening to over and over. This is especially true for bass lines — too often, the bass just plays the same note eight times, then the next note eight times… but when they’re actually given leave to explore their potential, really play within the structure of the song, it’s so much better.
Example: Rush, Time Stands Still
10. Pure emotion
These are the songs that really speak to me, these are the songs that tug at my soul — songs that manage to express in their music a pure emotional response. This is especially true of emotional vocals and vocalists. This is what music is all about. This is why I listen, and keep listening, and listen over and over and over again. This is why I make playlists depending on my mood. I wish I was this good. I wish I could express myself so fully and so simply.
Examples: Annie Lennox, Into the West; A Fine Frenzy, Almost Lover; Jason Robert Brown, Someone to Fall Back On
Now, obviously most songs can’t sustain themselves on these things alone (though an emotional cover of the Immigrant Song by cello, flute, and bagpipes backed by a full orchestra, with Barenaked Ladies-esque vocal hamonies, a more distinct vocal melody line, and a gradual build from a soft, emotional, opening “ah-ah-ah” to crashing climax could be pretty awesome). They also might need the guitars, the basses, the drums, and everything else that makes a song, but try taking a song and adding one or two of these things.
Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t. But this should give some insight into the kind of music I like. Maybe this is why I like musicals so much, or the kind of rich concert pop vocal music of Josh Groban or RyanDan, or a lot of other stuff. A lot of my likes probably come from my musical upbringing, with classical music and soundtracks.
Other top songs for me that follow many of these? The Beatles, Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End; Jethro Tull, Dot Com; Holly Cole, Baby It’s Cold Outside.