Ten Ways to Make Good Music

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

5. Strings

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

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