What Makes A Good Song?

What makes a good song? Wouldn’t we all love to know, though to some extent we do. At the very least, though it might sound crass, it’s got a hook, three verses and a chorus. Melody is important, though so many great songs don’t have one. Of course, lots of songs lack one or more of those things. For some reason people think that “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” is a good song, though it breaks all the rules that I’ve just stated. (And, honestly, I think the song is deadly, and it pains me that it is often the one Gordon Lightfoot song that people can name.)

There is one thing about songs, though, that I feel is always true: they can’t hold as much as a short story, an article, a movie, an opera, or perhaps even a painting. They need to move quickly. They need to have a structure, and if you try include too much content—too detailed a story line, too many syllables, too much highfalutin’ language–there is a risk of diminishing returns.

I once heard an interview, or read, or something—I actually don’t recall where I ever got this idea, though I know it was something like 30 years ago and, for some reason, I think it’s an idea that Bob Dylan suggested. Though, then again, perhaps not. Anyway, here it is: a good song surprises the listener at each turn. It starts with a very little, and then builds it out with each verse, adding something substantial—the surprising bit—at each pass. It’s not earth shattering, just little something new and unexpected each time around. Again, a good song starts with something small and explores it fully, turning it over and then over again through three verses.

The example that whoever-it-was gave was an imaginary song about a knife, and the example was teased out like this: In the first verse, a boy, let’s say, receives a knife from his father. It’s shiny and new, something to be coveted both for what it is as well as what it represents, which is an indication that the boy has graduated into a new phase of his life, into a new phase of responsibility. In the second verse he uses the knife to clean his first deer, and with the blood and the sinew comes a greater understanding of his power as a person and as a man. (You could even add a turnaround at this point, a C part, in which the father is revealed as a fraud of some sort, at which point the boy sees, for the first time, that his father wasn’t the hero that he imagined.) In the last verse, the boy, now a man, uses the knife to kill the woman he loves, learning … something. (If you had that C part, then in the last verse the boy recognizes his father’s faults within himself, seeing the thing that he once saw as a gift is, in fact, a curse.) Or, for a cheerier ending, perhaps the boy gives the knife, many years later, to his own son, passing along the values of the grandfather, now long gone, say, from a trucking accident.

Whatever it is, the last verse gives the poignant final punctuation for the song. You feel sated, you feel that you have explored something fully, and you are done with it. When it’s over, you feel light—not happy, mind you, but that you’ve finished the meal, rather than been dragged through an abattoir. The song, if it’s good, only had as much stuff as three minutes could handle, with a little bit of art thrown in to really make it, well, sing.

Songs that try to tell too much risk crowding out the idea at the heart of the song. Telling a story with a plot is deadly. We don’t care how the train crashed, or the boat sank, or the love was lost. We’re interested in what it means. “The Titanic sank because of miscalculation in the deployment of the double hull concept, as well as a lack of attention to obstacles within the shipping lanes.” That’s not a song. “The Titanic sank, mocking vanity and hubris, underscoring the sin of pride, a reminder that we are ever humble in the hands of the waters and the fates on which we float.” That’s a song. The image of the watchman sleeping in his bunk, the band playing, the cries of those separated from their loved ones—those are the kinds of details that can serve the song. “Double hull” hopefully will never appear within a lyric about the Titanic.

I think a good example is Blue Highway’s, “He Walked all the Way Home.” Yes, there is a bit of movement, and superficially it’s about a walk home. However, I’d say that those things are simply the setting for what the song is really about: regret and redemption. The Civil War was exceptionally complicated. This song, however, isn’t.

Does it matter? I think it does, and having now written lots of album reviews, I’ve had to wonder about the point of writing reviews. Is it simply about stating personal opinions? If it’s only about taste, then why do we review at all? Well I don’t think it is only about taste, and I think there is a point, and that is to celebrate the music that works well, and to engage with it on an objective level. Playing an instrument makes us better listeners, I think. So too is thinking a bit about how songs are constructed.


Comments

Steve Lipton: Simple: Shuffle beat; I, IV, V chords; and no minor chords.


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