Seemingly simple, the question of what makes a song good is actually a complicated one. What does the word “song” actually mean? One reliable definition would be “a composition of relatively short duration characterized by a melody, to which words are placed.” But people use “song” to refer to all sorts of music, including purely instrumental pieces. iTunes even labels Beethoven symphonies as songs.
Perhaps you are thinking, “If a simple definition of song is so hard to maintain, then how can we expect to establish what makes a song good?” The answer is: We cannot give one simple, or complex, formula to determine the quality of a song. However, several guiding principles do help determine what makes a song good. These transcend individual judgment and apply across a span of time.
While we don’t often dwell on it, each type, or genre, of music in our Western tradition has, or had in its time, a clear function. Function refers to an actual or perceived need for a particular composition. For example, a composer from Handel’s time would ordinarily write a trumpet processional for an actual procession or ceremonial action. The qualities that made the piece a good processional would register in every listener.
Songs, historically, were valued for preserving local history and legends, or were written to apply interesting melodies and harmonies to the newest poems by a region’s popular literary figures. Very few people today would mention either of those roles as the primary function of the songs they love.
When so many people now perceive a song’s main function to be entertainment, it might help to recast the idea of function to one of “suitability.” Is the song suitable for the circumstance in which it is heard? I once played the song “Oklahoma” on the pipe organ at a funeral. Though an unusual request, it suited the departed, who had an overwhelming love for his home state. My husband attended a wedding where the soloist sang “Fools Rush In.” Is that a good song? On that day, we hope not.
Think through familiar songs and consider their suitability. For example, the song “Happy Birthday” is so ingrained in our consciousness that we can barely imagine another melody or other (surely better) words applied to that melody. Across the globe, this song functions as an easy-to-grasp-and-sing birthday greeting, and no one is going to instigate a change any time soon. While all of us could identify countless songs objectively better than “Happy Birthday,” we would likely find it difficult to agree on anything more suitable to sing when the candles on the cake are lit.
Prima le parole e dopo la musica
“First the words, and then the music.” This catchy Italian phrase expresses the critical principle that words have been the driving force for generating music throughout most of our Western musical history. The poet would write the text and then someone, usually a different person, would fashion music to enhance the text. While good lyrics are not always synonymous with good poetry, we expect the lyrics to have some poetic integrity, yes? So what do we make of this Beatles song, which transformed the musical world?
You think you’ve lost your love,
Well, I saw her yesterday-yi-yay.
It’s you she’s thinking of
And she told me what to say-yi-yay.
She says she loves you,
and you know that can’t be bad.
Yes, she loves you,
and you know you should be glad.
Is that good poetry? This would seem to be the wrong question. For teenagers living in 1962, an era of relative innocence, it resonated. Perhaps we should say it was suitable for the circumstance. Four short years later, the same writers produced this:
Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been.
Lives in a dream.
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door.
Who is it for?
This may not challenge the legacy of Shakespeare and Tennyson, but it has considerably more poetic merit than the earlier song. I would judge “Eleanor Rigby” as quite a good song and “She Loves You” as a song with less quality. Do millions of ecstatic teenagers prove me wrong? For that matter, do I prove myself wrong? After all, back then I was one of those screaming teenagers.
My tastes have matured. What I found suitable for my adolescence has lost much of its appeal. But notice how “She Loves You” is stuck in its era. It spoke to a single generation. Contrast that with “You’re the Top,” a masterful 1934 song by Cole Porter dated by its cultural references:
You’re a rose
You’re Inferno’s Dante,
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.
We have forgotten Jimmy Durante, the great vaudevillian with the prominent nose who died in 1980. Dante’s Inferno has been forgotten by many for even sadder reasons. But “You’re the Top” still charms us with its clever laundry list of cultural icons that run the gamut from classical to trivial. “You’re a Botticelli, you’re Keats, you’re Shelley, you’re Ovaltine!” Its wit and sophistication place it in the pantheon of good songs.
Some songs endure because the lyrics, even standing alone, have great power. Consider just one: “I Saw My Lady Weepe,” an anonymous lyric set to music by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland around 1600.
Sorrow was there made fair,
And Passion, wise; Tears, a delightful thing;
Silence, beyond all speech, a wisdom rare;
She made her sighs to sing,
And all things with so sweet a sadness move;
As made my heart both grieve and love.
This poetic style of “Elizabethan Melancholy” found an enthusiastic audience in its time (more than just screaming teenagers). It speaks to something permanent in the human condition, and so it remains, more than 400 years later, a great example of a good song.
And Then the Music
Dowland used melodic figurations masterfully to illustrate his texts. The melody of “I Saw My Lady Weepe” literally sighs as it captures both the grieving and the love. This remarkable capacity of music underlines the whole point of Prima le parole e dopo la musica.
We Westerners tend to focus on melody as the primary component of music, and this holds true especially in songs. Melodies carry with them rhythm and harmony and meaning. They are not, as many seem to think, just a sequence of notes. They have musical syntax, which is why we find melodies so memorable.
For a melody to be suitable for a song, it must be singable. The human voice has extraordinary capacities, but it cannot do everything that is possible on a piano or a violin. So a perfectly good instrumental melody may be unsuitable for voice. We find many of the best melodies in the folk song repertoire, or in songs that evoke a folk style. These are inherently singable. Such folk melodies have been passed down through generations of untrained singers. Like rocks in a stream, their rough edges have been worn off over time and they glisten with simplicity and purity.
The best melodies strike a delicate balance between meeting our expectations and surprising us in some way. We derive our expectations from the conventions of Western music and, importantly, from what we consider suitable for the lyrics. We tend to reject what is too surprising and take little interest in what is too conventional.
Beyond the technical aspects of music, melodies also evoke an emotional response. Here too, we expect a reasonable balance. Unalloyed happiness strikes us as trite. Overwhelming sadness fails to draw us in. Melodies may be provocative, soothing, humorous, contemplative, or fall into any other category of human emotion. Most of us will consider a melody good only when we find it coherent in both musical and emotional terms.
But audiences have more recently elevated the importance of rhythm. They want songs they can dance to. When did songs take on this new function? By World War I, the proliferation of gramophone recordings, microphones, and radio transformed the song experience. Popular songs began to mirror the rhythms of dance, particularly during the period we call the “Big Band Era.” Before then, the purpose of song was to express the text, not to excite the feet. More recently, rap has caused the pendulum to swing the other way. Words command the primary interest while the music is often reduced to a mechanically repeated loop without the expressive qualities of melody and harmony. The principle of Prima le parole e dopo la musica was not just a sequence of events but a method for creating both balance and an artistic connection between words and music. When words and music no longer work in tandem, the artistry of a good song disappears.
Good for What?
None of us judges songs purely on craftsmanship. Songs accompany important events in our personal lives: moments of joy, discovery, fear, love, and loss. They memorialize those events and allow us to recall, even to re-experience, these emotions. That is the power of music. And so the critical question becomes whether a song puts that power to good use. Unfortunately, some of today’s popular music expresses only anger and despair. It reflects the tragic absence of beauty and virtue, not just in the music, but in the lives of those who are drawn to such expressions.
The answer to the question “What is a good song?” then, is personal in a way, but also universal. Good songs express our longing for good things—to find love, to laugh, and to share our sorrows. When that expression comes in the form of finely crafted art, the song will endure on the strength of its beauty and virtue.