I was looking recently at a list of some of the world’s most covered songs, and saw a few surprises on it. Some of them were what we’ve come to expect on such lists: Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”
But I confess I didn’t know that Ray Charles did a fantastic cover of “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s a great song, but doesn’t seem to be the kind that you’d expect groups other than The Beatles to have an interest in.
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When you hear Ray’s version, you find yourself saying, “Well of course, it’s a great soul tune.” And then when you hear Stanley Jordan’s amazing, mind-blowing guitar performance of this song at the Newport Jazz Festival, you begin to realize that you can do “Eleanor Rigby” in practically any genre you can name.
It must be the dream of any songwriter to write something that not only pleases the initial target audience, but then finds a new life when performed by others.
Is there something special about a song that can be covered by other performers, and more specifically, dressed up to sound great in a completely different genre?
The truth is that when you look at the melodic and chordal structure of great songs, there’s not a lot of difference. A song that sounds great as a baroque era “hit”, like “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (a chorale setting by J. S. Bach from 1723) can also sound great as a high-energy pop-rock instrumental, or even as bluegrass.
If you’re hoping to write something that others will be interested in performing regardless of genre, the good news is that you simply have to write a song that others want to hear, no matter what the initial target audience is.
If you look carefully at that list of most-covered tunes, you’ll see that there is nothing particularly different about any of these songs, except to say that they all serve as models of great songwriting, and when you analyze them you see that they follow good songwriting principles.
Most songs that transfer easily to other genres tend to be rather “tuneful”, meaning that there is a noticeable emphasis on writing a song where the melody rates highly as a point of interest.
Other than that, writing something that follows some basic songwriting principles will make it more likely that it will survive being transferred to other genres.
So if you’re hoping to write songs that others will want to perform as well, the job is still the same as it’s always been: write a song where the melody stands out as a vital element, and then, as always, write lyrics that sound relevant, and support it all with chords that partner up well.