Good Music For Simple People
What Makes a Good Song
If you type the phrase “What makes a good song” into Google’s search bar and click “search”, you’ll probably find some worthwhile results. I found, though, that most of those results assume that you are an aspiring musician looking for a technical answer. While the former might be true, the latter isn’t always the case. There are many professionals that answer this question by jumping into the chord progressions and the flow of the melody and tackle abstract concepts like “song versus sound”. I’m no professional in the music industry. At the time of writing, I have 7 years of guitar behind me and I currently coach a high school band that mainly plays covers. That said, I really couldn’t care about the technically correct way to structure a song. I don’t care whether you use a 1-3-5 chord progression or a twelve bar blues progression. I care about the song. Is it any good? I answer this question like the ordinary, albeit critical, average person that listens to their radio and either changes the station or chooses to bear with the current song being aired. Let’s take a backwards approach and start with some methods for identifying ‘potentially’ bad songs. There are exceptions, however they are few and far in between.
The Lyric Stupidity Test (LST)
I devised the LST a while ago when I was explaining to someone why a certain pop song was absolutely horrible and that it didn’t deserve the privilege of being listened to for another second. The test follows these simple steps:
- Listen to the song and write down the lyrics (or Google them)
- Read over the lyrics a couple times to make sure you know them well (If at this point they don’t make any sense, the song fails the test)
- Go to a respectable adult with a stable job and start your conversation with the question: “What do you think this means?”
- Proceed to recite your lyrics in a formal and educated manner.
The goal throughout the test is twofold: Firstly, there should be no laughter or concern for your mental well-being and secondly, you should still feel like a respected member of society. If these two do not hold, the song fails the test. Now I can literally hear musicians all over the world disagreeing with the validity of this test, but I urge you to think about it for a moment. If you took any mainstream Rap song released in 2015 and ran it through the LST, it would fail. I genuinely try to understand some of the lyrics out there today. I would sit in traffic and try my utmost to decipher what my local radio station decides to play for me.
Try The LST on this Song
The Extended Malapropism Test (EMT)
Being involved in a high school cultural department, I’ve paid my dues listening to aspiring teenage poets, rappers and lyricists who have over-extended their reach a little bit. They almost always fail the Extended Malapropism Test. For those of you who are unsure what a Malapropism is, here is the dictionary definition: “an act or habit of misusing words ridiculously, especially by the confusion of words that are similar in sound.” Basically, it means you’re using words you don’t understand because they sound right. Many songs on the radio make this mistake on a large scale and carry it through to develop what I call an extended Malapropism. There always seems to be an attempt at being deeply metaphoric and feigning intellect. Meanwhile any educated listener will immediately cringe upon hearing these intellectually insulting songs.
The Repetition Scale (RS)
Sometimes I wish I could call some of today’s artists just to tell them: “listen, I got the message when you said it the first 12 times”. It’s getting out of hand. Let’s say you’ve slaved away for weeks running songs through the LST and you’ve finally found a winner. Chances are, that artist has taken the only intellectual line they could come up with and repeated it 12 times in 2 octaves, and then paused a little just to repeat it again. I might be exaggerating slightly, but it needs to stop at some point, literally. A typical song structure would be verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. I can deal with that, but some songs today have these one-liner choruses that are repeated unnecessarily. Some songs might even feature one word that gets repeated 6 times non-stop. I mean ‘really’!
Let’s regard repetition of a single line or word for a moment and declare the following rough bounds:
- 2 repeats – understandable
- 4 repeats – getting on my nerves
- 6 repeats – It better be catchy
The Irritation Factor (IF)
This is simply personal preference. It’s probably a bit rude by some standards, but it’s a harsh reality of music enjoyment: sometimes some things just irritate you. This irritation can be anything from the artist’s face, a small overused trumpet noise, a certain vocal quality or even strange pronunciations (perhaps in the name of reaching very high notes) that could bring an otherwise good song down. The IF is usually the deciding factor behind your final judgement of a song. It’s immature and it’s horribly unromantic but it’s a real thing.
Putting it all together
These are the tools by which us, normal, educated folk are judging music today. We all do this at some level whether we realize it or not. For those who look down on us because of our lack of musical proficiency, we now have acronyms to accompany our opinions and even though they could be slightly amusing, they are useful in highlighting a few things in our music today. We’ve lost the complete package of a song that not only sounds great and makes us feel great, but also means something. Popular music today lacks intellect and replaces it with substandard samples and a bass-heavy beat while someone rambles on using nothing but expletives, greed, disrespect, blasphemy and violence. Add a sexual music video and you have a hit single. The worst part of it all is that the artists aren’t necessarily to blame because they wouldn’t be doing it if no-one paid for their work. Having clearly identified what we expect from a bad song, a good song would obviously be any song that doesn’t have these bad qualities and that leave us wanting more of it. You simply can’t put it in a box and say “this is good” and “this is bad” based purely on concepts and formulas. It requires taste and musical maturity. Unfortunately, right now, the world as a whole seems to have poor taste and lack any sense of musical maturity. This, however is just my opinion. Isn't the great thing about any art form the fact that there are different strokes for different folks, as they say. A part of me still believes though, that this isn't an excuse for bad music. After all of this, I think it's also necessary to say that 'good music' doesn't necessarily imply that I like the music. It just means that I respect it as a form of art. Which is more than I can say for certain songs today and I'm sure I won't be alone in this judgement.