The aesthetics of music are so troublesome to define, and should be! The arts by their very nature, as an expression of our innermost beings, are not easily explained (let alone defined). So when someone asks what constitutes a ‘good’ song, or a good work of any art form, it depends on how one feels about it, and what one personally considers to be ‘good’. The fact that a general all-encompassing consensus has not been made on the matter, and probably never will be (and doesn’t ever need to be, if you ask me), shows that every individual approaches art differently...
This is only my view on the subject!
Music is a matter of taste! Image source: https://spinditty.com/playlists/100songs
I was going to attempt, like Spector and Burgess, to make my own list of ‘good song’ requisites, but I don't find it the most true-to-form means of expressing aesthetics in art. I’d rather ramble on in a somewhat disorderly (possibly confusedly) manner to eventually (hopefully) come to some sort of a worthwhile conclusion whilst enlisting examples of songs I consider to be well ‘good' in order to help inform my argument.
Speaking of rambling, here is a favourite song of mine called Ramble On, by Led Zeppelin. I would say it is very much a good song, a great song even! So what’s cool about it? What makes it good?! Or at least not bad...
Ramble On, from Led Zeppelin II (1969). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_284RNK8eCo
Well for starters, it’s got one of the smoothest, coolest, foot-tapping feels that opens any song I've heard. The subtlety of the persistent knocking with the flutter of the acoustic guitar drives a playful, light-hearted energy, the bass slides in and a style is building... The vocals softly begin; drawing a thicker image, you're brought right in and it keeps your attention, because nothing is stagnant... The voice slaps conviction, "for now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and it's heading my way"... Instruments enter, rhythms are changing, layering, there's a dense interplay of parts, and something's impending, you can feel it.
Everything heightens as the drums pulse into the hard-hitting chorus, the style has changed up, there's a strength in its funky groove - the kick on the off beats, the wailing guitar - there's even more power in the vocals now, with the bass going mad in the back of it all, until, as abruptly as it began, we’re back out of it again - in the simmering build-up, knowing the punch will happen again...
What does this all mean anyway for how it's 'good'? Well the song is dynamic - it's up and down and in and out... It’s interesting! It has the large and looming, the loud and soft, the high frequencies and low frequencies… You can appreciate the grandness, the scope of intensities, through the quiet, the small - the flickering intertwining solos dancing through the structure of the song... Good music needs variation.
I'd call Led Zeppelin supreme at this... From Dazed and Confused to Stairway to Heaven, Since I've Been Loving You to Moby Dick - they master the art of contrast. Especially in one of my ultimate favourites of theirs, The Rain Song... The breakdown at 5 minutes, a heck eyeas!
The magnificent Rain Song, from Houses of the Holy (1973). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDVnjCwCYCs
No matter how songs chop and change throughout, though, good songs always seem to have an underlying connectivity - a unity throughout their parts (at any given time), with individual features working as a whole, to give songs an intrinsic character, or feel.
There are rules that govern music and the arts (even when it seems completely at random), and ways of using principles that make art pleasing to our nature and satisfactory for us to experience. Humans like things to make sense... There is importance in a song's harmony - amongst the arrangement, the feel and energy of the various instruments, between the rhythm and the groove, the key and chord progressions... Good music has symmetry.
In Ramble On, the mix has been masterfully balanced, so as to make everything in it feel like it should be there, it belongs there. The stereo image too, so full and luscious, comes together to make the entire mix rich and purposeful. This is something I find key to determining a good song - it's a complete mix, a complete aural entity.
Tomorrow Never Knows is a wild song, for 1966 especially! There's anarchic drumming, a bellowing vocal from Lennon, strangely disturbing tape effects and whining strings, but it all fits!
It works because within the scattered calamity there's a unity - a common undercurrent in its meaning (there's no uncomfortable contradiction).
Tomorrow Never Knows, by The Beatles, the final track on the album Revolver (this is a random fan-made video, I am unable to locate any other one with any form of original audio). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UjvdZm-Tu8
Same goes for Days Are Forgotten, which I consider to be an artfully balanced and blended song... Its parts are masterfully integrated.
Kasabian's Days Are Forgotten (2011). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBsQVP-Olmw
It's this integration of parts that gives songs a particular sound - a distinct, recognisable quality...
I would say most songs that could be considered 'good' do have a uniqueness, a particular character to them - they propel a certain emotion, connect to a particular thought, feeling, experience - there's a time you would listen to them, even an image you recall, a scene, a circumstance.
These are the songs that make a mark, that are special! That stand-out, are popular, intergenerational, timeless...
Such is the case with House of The Rising Sun (the Animals rendition) - there's a great solidarity between features that gives the song a complete, recognisable sound - in its main riff, the interrelation of the rhythms (such as the guitar solo with the cymbals), the way he yells the vocals so full of fervour, the growing menace that builds with the song - it has its own feel (a focused determination in a way). This is most likely why it's been so commonly used in film and media in emphasising particular purpose and emotion.
The Animals' impassioned performance of House of the Rising Sun (1964)... My throat hurts just hearing him sing this. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sB3Fjw3Uvc
Alt J have mastered an unmistakable sound I'd say. I consider this track to be brilliant, and it serves as a good example of uniqueness in music. It's strikingly unusual on first listen, and its starkness against other songs sets it apart. It is cross-genre and cross-style - a song in and of itself (as a track such as Bohemian Rhapsody is)... In this song's eccentricity lies great artistic value.
Fitzpleasure, from Alt J's debut album An Awesome Wave (2012). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npvNPORFXpc
Songs need to have their own recallable character In order to be in any way memorable. How else could it be catchy? So that before you even play the song, its aura is in your mind, with refrains that dig in enough that as soon as it finishes you could very well start it all over again, the music still swimming in your head...
Good songs have a style of their own...
The cool, unusual amalgamation of syles in Jack White's I'm Shakin' (from the album Lazaretto, 2014).
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkcGuZHPbKk
Supergrass' ball of youthful energy Alright (from I Should Coco, 1995).
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0KLEkZWL5k
With all this talk, the number one calling card for Ramble On is its spirit - it has character, funk, strength, soul! It's fun, it’s got a liveliness to it (the outro full of vocal quirks)! As do the other songs I've mentioned - the bouncing grunt of I'm Shakin', the pure fun of Alright... Music expresses anything between sorrow, angst, love, relaxation, madness, calmness and good songs come from feeling, and appeal to feeling.
Like the honesty of conviction in Cash's voice, along with the solid rhythmic guitar and the rich chord progressions, burning with spiritual undertones, in The Man Comes Around...
Johnny Cash's powerful The Man Comes Around. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9IfHDi-2EA
The placid spirit, with its emotional build up, of The Boxer...
One of Simon and Garfunkel's best, The Boxer. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzUEL7vw60U
To a hearty voice like Bill Withers, expressing lyrics so genuinely...
The soulful Ain't No Sunshine. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIdIqbv7SPo
And a song of calm softness like House Of Cards...
Radiohead's beautiful track House Of Cards (2007). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nTFjVm9sTQ
To the emotive rawness of Julian Casablancas' screaming amongst a plethora of noise in Reptilia...
The Strokes' Reptilia, from Room On Fire (2003). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8-tXG8KrWs
... Good songs have feeling. They have passion.
This is the part that translates, that affects you. Good songs stick with you, they define a moment in your life, a part of you... In short, they connect.
Maybe that’s what Burgess meant when he said ‘heart’.
Image source: http://quoteaddicts.com/tags/song-titles/11
Well what do you know, I think after all that I did incidentally formulate a list! (Whoever thought rambling could lead to such coherence)...
To me, good music needs:
(...almost looks like a list of ‘what you need for a good life’ ha).
And as a prerequisite to any of these, the beginning and the end, within and throughout them all - the song's spirit - its passion, its emotion, its heart, whatever you want to call it... The thing that connects... that gives the arts any value.
Image Source: http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/nme-staff-pick-their-top-10-greatest-albums-of-all-time-21877
In the end though (like I said at the beginning), it does come down to personal taste. If I’ve enjoyed a song in my life (even once), and it's added something to my life (even for a while), and maybe even if I am quite possibly enjoying this same song in 50 years, there's no mandate - I can safely judge it's a good song.
As an encompassment of everything I've spoken about, here's my 'song that I wished I'd written' - Heroes, by David Bowie. I find it just perfect, and I'll be listening to it for a very long time to come because it makes me feel good. As the late, great Prince Nelson astutely pointed out:
Image source: http-//www.picturequotes.com/prince-quotes
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgcc5V9Hu3g
Last week I explored Phil Spector’s ‘good music’ necessities, and discussed some of my thoughts on the topic. Another view comes from a fellow music producer (as well as a musician) Richard James Burgess. I think he addresses a greater scope of musical qualities and song-making particulars than Spector did in his succinct list.
Burgess (in his book The Art of Music Production) lists the following as being the precepts of making a good song, in order of importance:
I found the first point (I am assuming Burgess means the music and lyrics here) a little self-explanatory and slightly obvious. I would tend to agree that these are the most vital foundations of a good song - if the music itself is completely unimpressive then there isn't much hope for the performance, engineering and mixing (for example) to make up the gain. You could even draw that point apart and question whether it is the music or the lyrics that hold more importance! I'll be addressing this issue in a blog to come actually.
'The vocal' inclusion is spot on - the vocal performance can definitely make or break a song. It's interesting that Burgess set the vocal performance as a distinct point from the other instruments/sounds in his list - I think because vocals stand out so much, as unique and recognisable in timbre, and as the deliverer of the lyrics, that it's less forgiving to have an unfavourable vocal performance over other instruments (this does depend on the mix though).
Personally there are songs I would potentially love if it weren't for the vocals! Not to offend any diehard Cold Chisel fans but my oh my Jimmy Barnes' voice has a greatly negative effect on me, I would prefer I never had to hear him 'sing'. BUT I admit his voice is full of passion and for that I understand why people dig it / find it bearable.
At the same time, there are voices that can MAKE a song for me - I could hear certain artists sing the simplest tunes and feel so much from what is literally the honesty in their performance. Marc Bolan is one of the biggest, John Lennon, Paul Simon, FREDDIE Mercury, Otis Redding, Robert Plant... They could never be an ear-sore to me.
Cosmic Dancer is such a simply structured song (the chords, the arrangement, the pace...) but that's just its beauty I think, and thanks to Bolan's voice - its sincerity - this is all the song needs to be.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMfjA4gyEcU
Some of the more interesting additions to Burgess’ list I think are the arrangement, the engineering and the mix (points 3, 5, 6). These would often be ignored by the general public (in piecing the features of a good song), as they are more ‘behind the scenes’ than the music itself, and therefore less explicitly thought about, so to say. With the understandings formed through my Audio course, I have become more sensitive to discerning these features, and now consider them a natural part of the song’s wholeness. Their importance cannot be underestimated. Especially in songs with a serious lot of layers and complexities within them, the way the song is arranged and mixed is the song’s saving grace. Stephin Merritt would probably agree:
Image source: http-//www.azquotes.com/quote/1330120
The engineering, arrangement and mix in the album Who's Next is exceptional I think (that of The Who in general really). In Won't Get Fooled Again (production credited to The Who and Glyn Johns), the way it has been arranged and produced creates the vibe of the track, and unites its aspects so perfectly as to accentuate the song's power. Listening to this track in high quality stereo shows how the production and interaction of parts has created an entire image in space, and suspends a balance throughout the entire mix.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHhrZgojY1Q
Burgess nailed it when he added timelessness to the list. In my opinion, a song is proven good in its ability to transcend generations; appealing to a wide, varied audience in its inherent ability to appeal to the very nature of humans. This is the mark of music that has real value - that truly connects with and engages people (at a sincere level) - not as a fad, or a construct of impermanent popularity.
The fact that particular songs are still being listened to beyond the context within which they were created means they cannot be bad, valueless songs, so it serves true that good music and timelessness are closely correlated.
No one can argue this is not a good song - it was written in 1956 and has found a place in every generation since, beyond its birth in the Rock'n'Roll era. It has been covered a legion of times and has inspired a ridiculous amount of successive artists.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kT3kCVFFLNg
It would be naive to go past The Beatles in any discussion of timelessness - I argue they're the most (proven and potentially) timeless band in history. It seems there are countless individuals in every generation beyond The Beatles era that have discovered their music within their own lives and context, and have carried the songs into modernity. I detest that their music could ever possibly get old. Revolver, for example, sounds as current and modern as any music getting released today. I couldn't pick a song so here is an interesting documentary on the entire album (which helps to elicit its generational transcendence)...
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qs2OEdw7mrA (links to parts 2-4)
The last point in Burgess' list is the one I consider to be the most important. Heart is really within and throughout all the other aspects of a song - I'd consider it the undercurrent of music itself. A song can't be good without heart - if music doesn't connect, where's its value? To me, it's nothing. As Lev Tolstoy so perfectly elucidated: "Music is the shorthand of emotion" - and, like all the arts, so through emotion it should be created and experienced.
Monteverdi knew what he was talking about.
Image source: http-//www.picturequotes.com/claudio-monteverdi-quotes
I'll discuss 'heart' a little more in next week's blog, when I try to form my own list (of sorts) of what I think makes a good song... For now though, to end how I started and serve as a poignant illustration of the 'heart' discussion, here is Cosmic Dancer once again - this time live. Here one can really grasp the emotion within the music - through Bolan's vibrant, soulful performance (even with simply a guitar and voice!).
This feeling makes the song what it is, in it being what gives the song its spirit - what makes the modesty of the chords, the vocals, the arrangement, the lyrics, have any form of life...
YouTube URL: https://youtu.be/IO1DCE_43mY?t=31s
WHAT MAKES A GOOD SONG? The eternal question. What does ‘good’ even mean? How do we judge music at all? How do we judge the arts?!
All very pertinent questions. All questions pertinent to our class discussion this week.
Tim Dalton / Teebo brought up the concept of what makes a good pop song. Before we reached any depth in the deliberation, or enlisted the opinions of reputable/experienced sources (such as Phil Spector and Richard James Burgess), I thought, ‘surely there couldn’t be a list!?’ – music, and our relation to it, is completely personal, with qualities that cannot be described in words (especially through definitive ‘lists’).
An issue I had was how one would define a ‘good' song – is it whether it is successful? Does ‘successful’ mean to be critically acclaimed, well-received by the public or loved by even a few individuals? Does a successful song need to make a high volume of sales, make gold, make platinum?
I guess you it could be a combination of these things – which many songs have done, so it is worth considering the question of ‘how?’.
Tim referred to Phil Spector. I admire the man greatly as a producer, specifically in his work with the Beatles on Let It Be, with George Harrison and John Lennon on solo records, and with the Ronettes (Be My Baby is a genius song). I accepted, then, that there must be some validity in what he has to say about what makes a good song.
Spector's 3-point list says that to make a popular song, it:
1. Must be repetitive
2. Must have a primal beat
3. Must be about sex.
Firstly, this list couldn’t possibly be exhaustive because there are songs that tick all three of these criterion whilst not being what would necessarily constitute a good song (though that is always debatable). In saying that, the list isn’t misdirected and I agree with it to an extent.
I completely buy that popular music needs to be repetitive. Actually, I cannot think of a single song I enjoy that doesn’t repeat at least one section - whether a riff, a melody, a beat - or contains some sort of a structure (not to say it doesn't go in and out of it). Even the unpopular, alternative music I listen to contains at least a small element of repetition. You need something to latch on to with songs, that instigates it growing on you as the song progresses, and that will be catchy enough for your mind to grasp (and continue recreating even when it’s not playing).
The beat point is also very indicative. To have a steady, predictable beat, that drives a song and often underlies the various sections, helps to make a song repetitive and catchy, and give it its ‘feel’. We all like having something to clap along to, and drum on whatever tables and body parts are in reach. I think ACDC are a band that really got this (often using the steady 4/4 rock beat, with the kick on one and the snare of 2 and 4), and Led Zeppelin! John Bonham, the king of the kick...
The magnificent 'When The Levee Breaks' from Led Zeppelin - probably my favourite drumming in a rock song ever - so solid, grounded and strong... And it is continuous and quite simple in structure!
The sex point is debatable/questionable. I think it had more relevance in the 50s/60s than today, when talking about sex was (even) more ‘taboo’; making it more likely to fire a hit to number one in it’s utter outlandishness *outraged-posh-voice*. If the word 'sex' was swapped for 'love', the claim would have more leverage, but even then, it was never, and still is not, a prerequisite for good music. I can list a huge amount of GOOD songs (songs that are loved, have had critical acclaim, reached the top of the charts etcetera) that are not about love, or sex, or relationships, but have other purposes and messages...
David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' - a song that has its meaning in something mysterious, sci-fi, technological, futuristic... YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYMCLz5PQVw
Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' - with its huge scope of subject and imagery.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGxjIBEZvx0
The Clash's classic, 'London Calling' - like many of their songs, a political commentary with angst.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfK-WX2pa8c
Sam Cooke's passionate social commentary 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfK-WX2pa8c
What I consider to be the best of the Stones' - 'Gimme Shelter' - a musical expression of the horror of the Vietnam War. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9Y2gontVXs
One of my all-time favourite songs, The Ramones' fervent reaction to the controversial visit of Ronald Reagan (a.k.a Bonzo) to a WWII memorial cemetery in Bitburg - 'Bonzo Goes To Bitburg (My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down)'. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Su0Hvt6hTmA
I’d extend the requisite though to say that good songs do have some sort of a ‘point’ - a subject, or a particular feeling. They are about something, or convey something - something that can touch and affect the apposite function in people... it's about the FEEL (as the above songs illustrate)!
This 'feel' is addressed more by Richard Burgess' consideration of what formulates a good song. Burgess' list, which seems more wholesome, composes of 8 aspects, in order of importance: