The Tricky Definition of "Good" In Music

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Musical garbage filterIf you study Classical music history, determining what’s good has largely already been done for you. Using that great garbage filter we call “time”, the years, decades and centuries have all but filtered out the music that is either bad, unimportant, or otherwise uninteresting. It leaves you with a handful of composers, and a smattering of what in modern lingo we’d call hits – Beethoven’s 5th, Verdi’s Requiem, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and so on.

In pop music genres (pop, rock, country, etc.), the music world is a much more immediate world, and history doesn’t have the time to filter out the garbage. So some songs make it to number 1 today, but will likely never make it to the history books. They just aren’t good.

And who gets to decide if a song is good? Well, you do, of course. But sometimes, a song becomes a hit because the singer is riding a popularity high, and garbage will rise quickly to the top of the charts if it’s presented by someone popular. Not unlike a situation where if Robin Thicke throws a cigarette butt on the ground this morning, someone will try sell it on eBay tonight. Are we pathetic? Yes, but such is the power of the pop star.

But then the filter called time happens, and the singer’s popularity fades into the background, and your kids are listening to “your” music, and saying, “Oh, come on, Dad… “Muskrat Love?? Really????”

Because part of being a successful songwriter or performer in the pop music world means having an almost immediate affect on the listening public, it begs the question: what does good really mean? If we don’t have a satisfactory definition of good, it extends that we can’t really talk about becoming better. Knowing what good is gives us an opportunity to improve. Without a workable definition, songwriting success is left more-or-less to chance.

So how do you know if the song you’ve written is good? In songwriting terms, you need to be able to talk about composing music as something separate from performing it. As a performer, you have an important responsibility to stay on the cutting edge of your genre if you want to succeed.

But songwriting is different. While songs in the 70s, for example, sound very different from songs today, the main distinction is largely an issue of performance style, instrumentation and occasionally chord choices. The actual nuts and bolts of music hasn’t really changed all that much. So whatever made songs excellent in 1970 (at least from a structural point of view) has the same potential to make it excellent today.

Listening to today’s music and trying to emulate a new song’s success may not be very useful, especially if you can’t tell that the performer’s success or notoriety in society is preventing the garbage filter from kicking in. In that sense, you’d do far better to go back in time and look at the songs from years or even decades ago; the filter of time has had a chance to remove at least some of the songs from our consciousness that have proven to be weak once the power of the singer has faded.

So if you want to improve your songwriting skills, it might be better to check out Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time“, many of which have stood the test of time and made it through the garbage filter. And as you check those songs out, keep the following in mind:

  1. Don’t just value a song because you like it, or devalue it because you don’t; audiences are allowed to do that, but not songwriters looking to improve.
  2. Ask yourself why you think a song works so well, and then get specific: What’s great about that melody? What’s great about those lyrics? And then…
  3. Try to look for connections between elements within a song. In other words, don’t just ask why a melody is so good, but look for ways in which the lyric makes the melody better, and vice versa.

It’s true, but admittedly not very helpful, to say that a song is good if it takes the listener on a satisfying musical journey. It’s also true, and equally unhelpful, to say that you’ll know a good song when you hear it. In any case, the best learning you’ll ever do is to take a hit song from decades ago and pull it apart. If you do it with enough songs, your own songwriting standards will begin to rise.

Analysis of good music that has stood the test of time is probably the most important step to becoming a top-level songwriter.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – March 21, 2014 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  2. Excellent article as usual Gary , I agree with what you have written the only exception’s
    in today’s music ? is Rap and Hip Hop. I can not get into it at all, it strikes me the words and the mundane music is aimed at people who’s entertainment lifestyle is basically
    Getting stoned , and being out of their heads on drink, resulting in a complete lack
    of empathy for fellow human beings, something that is becoming tolerated too much by the rest of us, who have not got the power to change society from the direction it is heading.

    The lyrics are aimed at others who think it’s clever to act like a bunch of tough guys
    who in reality could not fight their way out of a paper bag.

    Call me old fashioned , yes I am and proud of it. and I’ll stick and learn from the songs of great composers like Lennon and Mac Cartney , Gershwin, Rogers and Hart , Rogers and Hammerstein, Diane Warren, Sammy Cahn, Burt Bacharack, Glen Frye, (Eagles)
    ABBA, to name just a few.

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