Louis Armstrong

What Makes a Perfect Song?

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Every once in a while you come across a song that you might describe as “the perfect song.” Everything seems to work, and it doesn’t appear to have any weak elements. It’s easy and fun to sing, the chords perfectly support the melody, the lyrics resonate strongly with you, and everything seems wonderful about it.

The Perfect Song

Ask a dozen people to name their “perfect song”, and you’ll likely get a dozen answers, because genre preference has a lot to do with it. But there are songs that keep getting mentioned — ones that have been around long enough to have become iconic in western culture:

  • “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Lennon & McCartney)
  • “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Paul Simon)
  • “Wichita Lineman” (Jimmy Webb)
  • “What a Wonderful World” (George Douglas/George David Weiss)
  • “Imagine” (John Lennon)

Sometimes you’ll read articles online on the topic of perfect songs, and the comment is often made that it’s hard or impossible to say why a song might be perfect. In fact, the difficulty identifying what makes it perfect is part of its charm; we like that we just can’t say why we like it so much.

What Makes a Song Perfect?

As a songwriter, identifying why a song might rise to the level of perfection in our minds is important. If you want to improve your songwriting technique, you need to be able to know why a song is so good, so that you can incorporate some of those principles in your own songwriting.

Here are my own thoughts on what makes a song perfect:

  1. The melody is front and centre in importance. No matter what genre you think of, the quality of the melody is almost always going to be the most important factor.
  2. The various fluctuations of mood we pick up from the song elements are in agreement. So it’s not just that the melody is great. It’s that the mood we pick up from the melody is supported by the mood of the lyric. The mood of the chords supports the mood of the melody. The instrumentation also rises as a crucial aspect of the song’s unified spirit.
  3. The lyrics (and song’s topic) have a universal aspect, where most or all listeners would feel an emotional connection. In “Wichita Lineman”, the song may seem to be about a lineman, but in fact it’s about love, and that’s why it’s so powerful.
  4. The song easily translates to different genres. You can hear “What a Wonderful World” as a jazz tune, a classical string quartet, even as reggae.

That ability for a song to move effortlessly into different styles and genres is a key part of its all-important universality, as that gives it its best shot for being known and loved by as many people as possible.

It’s not easy to write a perfect song, in the sense that it seems to come about as the result of random happy circumstances. The composers who wrote the songs in the list near the top of this post likely didn’t sit down to say that they’re going to write the perfect song.

But if you want to give yourself the best chance possible, consider those four thoughts above as tips: 1) Focus on melody; 2) Be sure that all song elements support each other; 3) write about things that everyone has the best chance for feeling an emotion; and 4) Try your song in different genres and playing styles.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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