Recently I was asked what makes a great song. That’s a simple question and a tough question. The simple answer is, anything that sticks in your head. However, songs you hate can stick in your head as well. The fact they stick there is great, but that doesn’t mean you think it’s great.
Here’s a list of things that I would purport to say would make a great song (in no particular order):
â€¢ Unique intro: It should grab the listener in some way. A drum groove, a vocal, a guitar line, a bass, a banjo, a piano, a sound effect, something. Great examples: Walk This Way (Aerosmith), Like A Stone (Audioslave), Your Most Valuable Possession (Ben Folds), I Want You To Want Me (Cheap Trick), Live It On Up (Eclipse), One Thing (Finger 11), Destiny (Zero 7)
â€¢ Melody: Often it’s the easiest songs to sing that can make a huge hit. A melody that people can remember helps. Great examples: Everything You Are (Vertical Horizon), When It Comes (Tyler Hilton), The Sweetest Thing (U2), We Will Rock You (Queen), 7 (Prince), All You Need Is Love (Beatles)
â€¢ Rhythm: The flow and groove of a song is the backbone. While I prefer a swingyier bounce to things, there are straight feels that work too. This is combo of the drums and all the instruments. Great examples: U + UR Hand (Pink), Highway To Hell (AC/DC), What A Fool I’ve Been (Crystal Lewis), Come By Me (Harry Connick Jr.), Spyder (Imperial Drag), Cry Me A River (Justin Timberlake), Are You Gonna Go My Way (Lenny Kravitz), The Big Come Down (Nine Inch Nails)
â€¢ Standout Instruments: Is there an instrument that creates a part in the song that really drives it along? A lot of the time in rock it’s the guitar. It could also be a piano, banjo, typewriter, something. This includes how awesome a player that played that instrument can be. Great examples: My Kinda Lover – guitar (Billy Squire), Big Country – banjo (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones), Home – foot stomps & kicks (Marc Broussard), I Think I Love You – Harpsichord (The Partridge Family), Don’t Give Up – (Peter Gabriel), Ladies Night – Acoustic Guitar (Preston Reed)
â€¢ Vocalist: The voice needs to be unique in some way. The true test is if a vocalist is someone who’s voice you can stand to listen to. Great examples: Every Little Thing She Does – Sting (The Police), Silent Lucidity – Geoff Tate (Queensryche), I’ve Got A Woman (Ray Charles), Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Since U Been Gone (Kelly Clarkson), My Stupid Mouth (John Mayer), Groove Machine – Dug Pinnick (King’s X)
â€¢ Chords: There’s a small subset of chord progressions that get used over and over. But can a writer make that a big more interesting or can they come up with new chord progressions that make for interesting songs. Great examples: Sunday Morning (Maroon 5), Lakini’s Juice (Live), Band On The Run (Paul McCartney & Wings), So I Fall Again (Phantom Planet), Come Home (State & Madison), Suddenly Monday (Melanie C)
â€¢ Lyrics: The guts of the song, the journey, the story. Do the words relate to me at all? Having a unique view on the world that somehow fits my life is the key to lifting a song up high. Great examples: Yesterday (Beatles), I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (Melanie Doane), Torn (Anne Previn), Ordinary Man (The Mustard Seeds), Simple Kind of Life (No Doubt), Fifty-Mission Cap (The Tragically Hip), Friends (Poundhound), Hanging By A Moment (Lifehouse), You Can Love Yourself (Keb’ Mo’)
â€¢ Endings: For some reason endings usually get a fade out or maybe the song stops. But there are songs where the ending of the song actually makes a case for being cool. Great examples: Heroes & Villains (T-Ride), Crazy (Seal), Driven (Rush), Try (Nelly Furtado), Scream (Michael Jackson), Circles (Joe Satriani)
â€¢ Production: Yes, there are times when the production of the song will actually enhance a good song into being great. Likewise a great song could probably become godly. Whereas a poor song will only be easier to hear that it’s not so great. It’s the ear candy. Great examples: These Words (Natasha Bedingfeld), What You Need (INXS), The Reason (Hoobastank), Call Me When You’re Sober (Evanescence), Little Bird (Annie Lennox), In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Ordinary (Train)
Having written all that out, is there a song that I can come up with as an example that would characterize all of this in one song. Hell no. In fact, there’s a whole lot of songs that have been left off.
To take the heat on my own criteria, I felt it prudent to hit myself for Single of the Day today. Falling In was something that started as a guitar riff that I had kickin around. A slap and pop idea, normally reserved for playing bass lines. Hence it fits the unique intro and standout instrument at the getgo. From there I fleshed it out with a little melody that flowed thru the chord change which is fairly different. The melody is easy to remember, the chords change more from the bass line than the upper harmonic structure. That fulfills those things. Lyrically its about two people that are so in love there isn’t a need to say it out loud. Its even running in their dreams as they’re sleeping. It’s a journey of someone watching that while in bed. The ending is unique in that the drums keep going after the other instruments have stopped. If you listen loud in headphones, there’s some interesting scratch noises in the end. Production wise there is a foundation with the guitar then other instruments are brought in to paint additional textures. Strings, percussion, bass, etc.
While this isn’t yet a big breakout hit, it has won an award. Which means it does resonate with people. That’s a great thing. While I’m sure not everyone that reads and listens today will agree with my choices and examples, I’m sure that songs that are great your life share some of these qualities.
Thanks for coming by, reading, and listening. Don’t be shy to comment, and send in song submissions you think I ought to chat about here.
Big thanks to Ariel Publicity for the write up of Single of the Day in their recent eLetter.