You know a good song when you hear one. A good song can send a chill down your spine. It can immediately get your head bouncing. A good song can have you singing the words by the second chorus. A good song makes you want to spin the track again.
As a songwriter, your ears aren’t just tuned to ‘knowing a good song when you hear one’ they are also tuned to wonder ‘what makes this song so good?’. Answering that question is harder than you might think.
It is important to have some ideas of what makes a good song good so that you can evaluate your songs and try to sort out where they stand. In this guide we are going to break down the elements of a good song and show you how to identify these elements in your own songs.
The easiest way to identify a good song is by its effect on you when you hear it for the first time. Does it make you emotional? Does it catch you off guard? Here are a few things to look out for on the first listen.
An Emotional Connection And Reaction
Every songwriter has had the experience of listening to a song for the first time and feeling intense emotions or a gut reaction to the music. These emotions are often what keep people coming back to the music.
Sometimes, these emotions are sadness, nostalgia, regret, guilt, or some sort of deep introspective emotion. The song gets at the essence of some of these universal feelings, and makes you relive some of the important moments in your life. Or, the song is so well-written and recorded, that you can live the story or experience of the artist in an emotionally connected way.
On the other hand, the emotional reaction to a song could be something like joy, anticipation, the feeling of wanting to dance, anger, excitement, or carefree feelings. People use songs to get pumped up at the gym, they use them to party and dance, and they use them to illicit a feeling when they are relaxing.
The point is, upon listening to the song, the listener is compelled to do or feel something. Dance, laugh, cry, reflect, relive, think, or just put the song on again.
Your song could illicit any of these emotions. Getting an emotional connection or reaction from your listener on the first listen is important.
Great songs have memorable lyrics, melodies, or instrumental ‘hooks’ that stick in a listener’s mind and keeps them coming back for more. These are the earworms that get stuck in your head. They are the hooks that you look forward to in a song.
Often these hooks are a melody and a lyric. Hooks can also be instrumental – a particularly catchy synth line, drum part, bass part, bass drop, breakdown, whatever – can also keep people coming back for more.
If your song isn’t memorable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad song, but it can be a sign that you need to work on it some more. Are there some parts that bear repeating? What message are you trying to get across?
Sometimes, I find that if I can’t remember the lyrics to my own songs, I might need to rewrite some of the lyrics. I want my lyrics to stick in my head and stick in the heads of my listeners. After one listen, the listener should be able to remember their favorite part of the song.
Surprising Or Unexpected Twists
Have you ever listened to a brand-new release from your favorite band and been totally surprised at every twist and turn? What a great feeling!
Great songs often surprise the listener with clever lyrical twists, surprising melodies, or an unexpected change in the chords (harmony). In my opinion, the best songs surprise you, but also leave you feeling like the ‘surprising’ move in the song was the perfect thing to do.
You shouldn’t necessarily make your songs surprising at every turn just for the sake of doing unexpected or unusual things. This can leave the listener confused. Choose your moments wisely, and try to say something with your twists and turns.
There is also beauty in simplicity. Songs do not need to be complicated to be good, at all. However, it’s worth trying to say things in an original way.
One of my favorite quotes about creating art is: “Everything worth saying has been said before, but nobody was listening, so you have to find a way to say it again.”
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you do need to find ways to shed new light, new ideas, new twists on themes that have been around for centuries.
Structure And Tone
The first impression of a song is about the emotional, gut reaction people have to songs. This is a beautiful and somewhat mysterious concept – how do you write things that connect with people? It’s hard and there is not real formula.
However, songs themselves are not mysterious. They have defined structures and commonly used techniques that anyone can learn, practice, and master.
Believe it or not, learning how to use structure properly and understanding what makes a good song structure can actually help your song have the emotional impact you are looking for. Structure guides the listener’s ear and helps them understand and connect with the song.
Good songs have a defined structure. There are many different song structures available to you, and most of them you’ll already know.
Verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus. (Standard song structure).
Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. (Another standard structure)
Verse ending with a refrain, repeated over and over. (Standard folk structure)
Verse, hook, verse, hook, verse, hook. (Standard hip-hop structure)
And dozens more. You do not need to reinvent the wheel, nor should you. Learn how to use these structures and try to write a great song that follows one of them. Copy the structure from another song.
Learn to use these structures and then learn to ‘break the rules’ in interesting ways.
Contrasting Sections And Dynamics
Part of a good song structure is having defined sections and contrasting sections. The chorus should be different from the verse. Each verse should bring something new to the table. The bridge should have a purpose.
There are lots of ways to achieve contrast between sections. Changing the melody, simplifying and repeating lyrics, choosing a different chord progression, changing the instrumentation, etc. Think of your favorite songs – what do you love about the chorus compared the verse? How are they different?
You don’t always need to get ‘bigger’ in the choruses and ‘smaller’ in the verses, sometimes it can be very effective to do the opposite of what you would anticipate. The point is that there are noticeable differences between the sections so that you don’t get bored.
The Arc Of A Song
Movies, TV shows, books, and plays all have a concept called ‘pacing’ which can be used when thinking about songs and albums as well.
A common way to pace a story is: exposition (setting up characters, settings, conflicts), rising action (conflict builds and you move along), climax (the turning point of the story, thing are moving in a different direction), falling action (plot holes tied up, questions answered), and resolution (the solution or ending).
You should think of songs in the same way.
The intro is your exposition. You’re setting the mood, establishing the instrumentation, setting the key, and maybe gently teasing at a few melodies. If there is no musical intro, then you are setting up lyrics, characters, ideas, conflicts, and stories.
The first verse is your rising action. You’re building to something. Keeping the story clear and laying out what the song is going to be about.
Your first chorus is also part of the rising action – it’s probably not the climax yet! Many songs will only give the listener a half chorus or a single chorus for the first one. Just teasing at things to come.
By the second or third chorus things are really moving. This is sometimes the climax, or sometimes it is still rising action. You get to decide.
The bridge can be the chorus, or it can be falling action; explaining a different perspective on the song, or really ramming home the point. The last chorus is sometimes the climax and it is sometimes the resolution. Some last choruses will be huge and fade out, some will be quiet and thoughtful.
Songs should have arcs the way any story should have an arc. Without an arc, the song is flat and boring.
Clever Lyrics And Rhymes
The truth is, great songs don’t need incredible lyrics. It certainly helps if the lyrics are clever, the rhymes are tight, and the song has meaning, but lots of hit songs don’t fit that description. Your lyrics need to be memorable, singable, and suit the song.
Using a clever rhyme scheme is a great way to keep the listener interested. Rhymes stick in people’s heads and keep them coming back for more.
Making sure the lyrics are tight and rhythmic will make the song catchier and make it easier for the listener to sing along. People love being able to sing along to songs, even just in their heads. It fuels the emotional connection with the song.
I am an advocate for being picky with your lyrics. Being lazy never helps. That said, there is a point when you should stop worrying about finding the ‘perfect’ word or a ‘clever’ word and just write plainly, honestly, and not worry about whether it is perfect or clever.
How To Tell If Your Song Is Good
We’ve gone through a some of the characteristics of a great song, but how do you know if your song is great? Often, after you’ve worked hard on a song, you can’t even tell if you like it anymore.
Here are my recommendations.
Take A Break From Your Song And Listen With Fresh Ears
I think that it is important to take breaks from the songs you are writing and recording. It is important to do the work and finish the song, but once you are done, take a break. Let it sit. Don’t listen to it for a few days, or better yet, a week.
When you come back to the song with fresh ears, you’ll be able to make a much better judgement on the nature of the song.
Find A Trusted Friend To Bounce Ideas Off Of
It is hard to find people who will give you an honest appraisal of your song. To me, the ideal person is someone who knows a lot about music and perhaps makes music themselves, someone whose taste and opinion I respect, and someone who will be completely honest with me.
Find someone you can show you music to and talk to about how you are feeling about it. This could be a mentor or it could be a peer. Be open to their criticism and suggestions and be open to their excitement if they love the song!
It’s important to return the favor – if you are constantly showing material to a peer and wanting honest feedback, you need to make sure that you are returning the favor. You can learn a lot about songwriting by listening critically to other people’s songs!
Listen To Your Song In Your Favorite Listening Environment
When do you listen to your favorite albums? Personally, my favorite way to listen to music is when I’m riding a bike or skateboarding. Sometimes I like to listen while I’m cooking or hanging out as well. For some people, it’s driving their cars down the highway.
It may seem weird to listen to your own music in those situations, but it can be super useful. How does your music make you feel when you listen to it as a listener instead of the creator?
You’ll know if it is hitting properly and you’ll know if you haven’t nailed the vibe.
Don’t give up on old songs you thought were great
One last piece of advice; if you thought a song was great at one time, don’t give up on it just because you haven’t released it yet. It might not represent how you feel or how you are right now but it is a piece of who you were, and it might be worth releasing.
I have a close friend who made an album, and scrapped it, but then got a small record deal, and they wanted to put out some of the songs he ‘scrapped’. They are his most successful releases to date.
What Makes A Good Song, Final Thoughts
Good songs are a mixture of magic and mystery and structure and technique. You know a good song when you hear it and you’ll eventually be able to know a good song when you write it. Keep writing, keep recording, keeping practicing.