Every once in a while on social media you’ll see debates on the topic “What is music?” These are usually frustrating interactions, because no one is going to be fully satisfied with the answers they read, and maybe that’s the point of the question in the first place.
It’s a little like asking someone “What’s the best breakfast meal?” It mostly comes down to what you’ve always considered the best, based on what you ate growing up, and it’s almost never going to be the same as someone else’s experiences.
When you think about it, it is a little strange that we can’t easily define music. We can always rely on the standard “You know it when you hear it” kind of answer. But all we can say for certain is that it involves sound. But lots of things involve sound that aren’t music… or are they? (Ah, the debate continues!)
For me, I like to draw a line between something we call music, versus something that has musical value. So birds twittering overhead might have musical value, but it isn’t music. By saying that, I suppose that I am saying that music requires intent. You must intend to make music, or else it simply sounds like music.
What Makes a Song a Song?
It does seem strange on the face of it that Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (1815) is a song, and so is Dua Lipa’s “Levitating (2021).” We call them both songs, though on first listen it sounds like no two songs could be so different as these two.
There are similarities, of course: they both use chord progressions, they both change moods and textures as they progress from beginning to end, and they both use lyrics as a way of pulling audiences in.
And there is one other similarity that often doesn’t get much of a mention when trying to compare two such different genres of music: they take time. There is a beginning, then something happens that takes place over a certain number of minutes, and then they end.
In that sense, both “Erlkönig” and “Levitating” represent what any and all songs represent: a musical journey.
The Song as a Complete Musical Journey
Whether Schubert is your cup of tea, or whether you spend your time listening to the kind of songs that Dua Lipa is likely to record, you need to feel satisfied by the end of the song that you’ve heard a complete musical journey.
If there is any sense of “you’ll know it when you hear it” when it comes to songwriting, it is that journey-aspect of songs. We know that pop songs are likely to be done by somewhere between the 3- and 4-minute mark. By the end, it needs to sound like the end.
There are some songs that I’ve often felt needed more. It’s not just that Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” is short, coming in at 2 minutes. Short songs are fine. But I’ve just always thought that the song needed something else to make it a complete journey. My musical brain kept wanting some sort of bridge section that might introduce a new key at least for a short while.
But smarter people than me felt the journey was complete — complete enough, anyway. It was a hit, and so there you go: a complete musical journey.
As a songwriter, you can use this concept of the song as a complete musical journey to assess and troubleshoot your own songs. If you’ve written a song that seems somehow incomplete, regardless of its length, you’ve got two main options, and they depend on whether you feel that you got to the chorus too soon, or perhaps the entire verse-chorus format of the song just seems too short:
- If the chorus seems to happen too soon: elongate the verse by considering adding a pre-chorus section. (Need help with this? Read “Momentum and Musical Energy: What the Pre-Chorus Does For a Song“)
- If the verse-chorus combination leaves the song feeling too short: try adding a bridge section. (If you’re not sure how to do this, give this recent blog post a read: “Ideas to Make the Bridge the Most Powerful Section of Your Song“)
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas.