What Makes a Great Song?

As most people can attest, music is one of the great pleasures in life. It can provide a soundtrack to many different stages in a person’s life, from birthdays to weddings and even as a final request for much-loved tracks to be played at a person’s funeral. Put simply, music is a pleasure that can be enjoyed throughout a person’s life. Regardless of the genre of music that you enjoy the most, great songs will always obey certain principles of music theory. These can include having a part that focuses a person’s interest, perhaps with a catchy guitar riff that repeats, or by using lyrics that resonate with the listener. In this article, there will be an in-depth discussion of what makes a truly great song. Key concepts of song writing and theory will be explored, along with a discussion on the recording and producing skills that can help to elevate any track from good to great.

The Lyrics Tell a Story

Whilst modern pop songs may not obey the rule of lyrical storytelling, some still do, and some of the greatest pieces ever written can transport the listener with the lyrics alone. Put simply, many great songs feature lyrics that tell a story that many listeners can relate to and the words resonate with them. You can find a comprehensive list of some of the best lyrics in song writing here. Whilst you may not like every choice, it is hard to disagree that the lyrics are exceptionally well constructed and can help to evoke powerful thoughts or memories. Classic songs like the Beatles’ Elanor Rigby tell a story that relates to a woman who led a secluded life and, as such, did not get to fully appreciate the finer points of existence. Whilst most people will not directly relate to the character portrayed in the song, it is hard to argue that the song is not captivating and paints a story that warrants repeat plays. In short, a song with well-constructed lyrics that mean something is often a song that becomes a timeless favourite with music fans around the world.

Use of Musical Theory

Whilst the genre of early punk rock may not have had skilled musicians who were masters of their instruments, even these raw tracks will obey a range of music theory concepts. Even beginner songwriters learn to understand that their music must have some key parts of musical theory in them to sound good. These can include the understanding of what is a bridge in a song and how to change keys whilst still creating a smooth musical progression. Put simply, all the greatest songs will follow strict rules for their composition to ensure that they delight the listener and become popular tracks.

A Catchy Hook

One of the most important parts of any song, regardless of its genre, is having a memorable or catchy hook. A hook is a musical technique that puts a specific passage or a few melodic notes into a song. This passage or guitar riff will instantly grab the attention of the listener. Often hooks are repetitive and after listening to the song, the hook will still be in the forefront of the listener’s mind. An example of a great hook is in Eric Clapton’s musical masterpiece “Layla”, which he wrote whilst in the band Derek and the Dominoes. At the beginning of the song and repeated throughout is an extremely catchy selection of guitar notes (the riff) which immediately captivate the listener and define the feeling and mood of the whole track. Whilst the riff has become something that millions of guitarists have learned and replicated during their learning of the instrument (especially as it is quite a simple riff to play) the genius of the hook lies in its creation. Put simply, a great hook is often easy to play but incredibly difficult to create.

Superb Production Levels

As a final point, the subject of music production must be discussed as it is a key part of making a truly great song. Skilled audio technicians will work with bands in the recording studio to ensure that each separate instrument and track “cut through the mix” effectively and that there is a suitable balance in the overall composition. The work of sound engineers is incredibly important to make a track become a hit. Bands such as Pink Floyd are renowned for their exceptional levels of music production and they use expert mixing skills in both their records and their live shows. Good mixing and production can help to elevate any piece of music, but when you have an incredible song combined with exceptional production quality, it is likely to become a timeless classic.

While dissecting the elements that contribute to the greatness of contemporary music, it’s fascinating to trace back to where musical recording began. ‘What Are the Oldest Recorded Songs and Their Historical Contexts?’ explores the very roots of recorded sound, shedding light on the pioneering tracks that have paved the way for the hits we celebrate today.