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