Why Some Songs Last, and Some Die Quickly

Some thoughts on what you can do to keep your songs from quickly sounding dated.


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Rock BandWhen songs first come out, it’s not very difficult to determine which are the “good” ones, and which ones aren’t. What is sometimes hard is determining which ones will still be played regularly 50 years from now, and which ones will quickly fade from public view.

Songs like The Beatles’ “Yesterday, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, and Nirvanah’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are still staples of classic rock stations, while others, like perhaps The Captain & Tenille’s “Muskrat Love,” — a number 4 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 — is less likely to be heard.

What gives a song staying power? It often has to do with what a song fails to do, and therefore causes it to be quickly forgotten.

Keep in mind, though, that some songs sound dated, but are still revered and played regularly, even 50 or more years after being written and recorded.

Nonetheless, here are some things to keep in mind when writing music that you hope people might still enjoy over the ensuing decades:

  1. Instrumentation. Every era has its sound, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Music from the 80s, for example, is heavily synth-based, and recognizable right away because of it. We still listen to it, but it’s dated. The songs that stand up a little better have a more balanced instrumentation that still incorporates “standard” instrumentation like guitars, piano and other more “organic” instruments. Suggestion: Don’t leap on the latest faddish sound and dwell on it. Go for a more balanced sound that still uses a good mix of the instruments that have given rock & roll its sound – guitar/bass/drums.
  2. Chord choices. You can recognize eras for the chords they use, and I’m talking mainly about the added tones: 7ths, 9ths, etc. The 70s used lots of 7ths, particularly major 7ths on I- and IV-chords. Power ballads use lots of sus4 chords. Suggestion: Don’t use too many chords with added tones, even if they sound great. Basic chords without the added 7ths, 9ths, suspensions, etc., will often sound completely fine, and do little to negatively date your music.
  3. Lyrics. This is where it gets tricky. Every era has its way of saying things. Listen to an interview with a musician from the late 60s, and you’ll hear lots of talk about “cool cats”, “groovy” this & that, and so on. There’s not a lot you can do to avoid that. But you can avoid some of the pitfalls of bad lyric-writing. Suggestion: Keep your words plain and common where possible, the type you might use in conversation, but try to avoid overuse of present-day colloquialisms and expressions. And always match the natural pulse of the words with the rhythms and melodies of your song.
  4. Topics. The kinds of things you write about can date a song. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and we still hear great music today that was dealing with the American civil rights movement, like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” But sometimes a song can date itself just by the naive way it goes about a topic. Bobby Curtola’s “Three Rows Over” is a good example. It’s a fine song, but was probably dated when it was released. Suggestion: Songs that deal with serious issues (civil rights, justice, environment, etc.) are going to last, even if they sound dated. So don’t be afraid to write about today’s important issues. At the same time, however, songs that deal with more universal (even if less important) issues that are part of being a member of the human race (love, for example), will last, if it’s dealt with in a creative manner.
  5. Other song elements. Backing vocals can give a song away as being from a bygone era. It’s hard to identify the kind that will sound dated over time. Certainly vocals that repeat after the main vocal line (like the bridge of “Please Please Me”) is an example. Suggestion: To be safe, backing vocals that amount to “oohs” and “ahs” will do little to date a song, and might stand the test of time a little better than other options.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Why Some Songs Last, and Some Die Quickly | SongHacker

  2. Hi Gary,
    this may be a bit off topic, but the length of songs commercially played has always it seems had a limit 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, dates back I guess to the days of vinyl or even the older 78’s. This is true even to the present day. Classical music on the other hand does what it does and the time limits are much expanded. Some songs NW Passage, American Pie, Canadian Railway Trilogy etc have defied and broken unspoken rule, this tendancy to give in to the assumed attention deficit of modern listening audiences. True the songs listed are iconic songs and grab the attention of any audience. So in your mind what are the elements of a great long song? I find myself writing long songs, because the issues I write about are usually not simple ones and sometimes it seems that there is a lot that needs to be said. I’m writing one now that is called Look Away M’Boy that deals with PTSD and veterns their relationship to their families, the public and the govenment that practically ignores their very real issues. I’m struggling with the idea that it is too long. When I sing it though it seems to go quickly and before you know it it is over. I like the Stan Rogers idea of mini opera type stories White Squall, Make and Break Harbour and Keeland’s Let Me Fish Off Cape St Marys. More important in all this is there room for the long song, that has a real story, Bruce Guthroe’s “Falling” never fails to move me, I haven’t checked to see how long it is. but I think it is greater than the standard accepted for radio play.
    All the best,
    Jim Reid
    ps I’ve hinted to my son that I would like your e-book bundle for this Christmas.

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