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What Makes a Good Song?

Updated on December 3, 2010

This is a simple, yet, very loaded question because it is most subjective to the tastes and expectations of the listener, who, despite all claims, is biased.

Every so often, I receive invites to send in song material to various contests, most recently is one for the 2010 International Music Songwriting contests sponsored by sonicbids. This organization helps musicians get gigs, get discovered by exposing their music online etc. Of course, it is all for a fee of $25-35 a song.

I was going to submit a few but then I started thinking about scams. Not to say this contest is one, because it is legit, but the scam of someone really listening to it seriously and determining whether it is a potential #1 hit. Since Jan. 2010, thousands have submitted their songs to them and others, how does one KNOW the song was really listened to by a professional, well known, artists or producer? How does one know if even this person listened to it without distractions or biases? For instance, maybe the song was listened to by a producer of mostly rap, yet the song was a ballad. Depending on the person listening, the bias against it or for it may be too much for them to overcome.

Then, I started thinking of many super famous songs of the past. Ones that have been recorded by hundreds of artists throughout the years. That song was Yesterday, recorded in 1965, by The Beatles. It was #1 for 11 weeks. As odd as this sounds, it is my least fav song from them, in fact, I skip over it.  Is this song REALLY that great? Don't ask me. With that in mind, I thought what if some unknown had written it, would it have ever been a hit record? I tend to think not. First of all, unless the unknown managed to get the attention of a known producer, most would just say it is a nice ballad.

It would be an interesting experiment for an unknown applicant to submit a Beatle song not made famous by them. say, World Without Love, Woman, I'll Keep You Satisfied, Leave My Kitten Alone, Sour Milk Sea, Bad to Me, Step Inside Love, I Don't Want To See You Again. These were songs "donated" to lesser performers that needed a hit, yet, for The Beatles, substandard enough for them NOT to do them. In some cases, they were #1 hits, in others, just lost in fray.

Would the song proceed through the tiers of judging to higher levels and win? More daring would be to do one, a lesser song, say, Every Little Thing, No Reply, never released as a single, just a number off their LP. What would the result be? Would even Lennon & McCartney songs done by unknowns win?

My initial reaction would be no.  Most of the judges are 40 or younger. They have whatever music biases in place. They may not like them for the lyrics, the melody may be too simple. Is submitting a song without a band backing a strike against you?

How many great songs sounded fairly bland and hitless in their infancy, when it was just the composer singing it with a piano or guitar. Take The Beatles, " A Day in the Life", mega hit from Sgt Pepper. With the song bare and naked as the first demo shows, it was just OK. The words did stand out (because John was singing them from a newspaper account), but none of the end result music was present. This is a song that made music history. Who would have thought?

In this light, music or songwriting contests are more gimmicks for the sponsor to get revenue than a talent search. American Idol is the same. Few winners of that show have gone on to become musical wonders. I am talking a mega star with instant name recognition. Sure, there are the Justin Beiber's stories, people singing on YouTube, a producer sees it, likes it, etc. But are his songs really that great? No, but those supporting him are milking the success because he is hot.

The bottom line is that for songwriters and musicians it is being at the right place at the right time. Take Taylor Swift, was was turned down by record companies. She then performed at a local club one night, in the audience was... well, you know the rest of the story. The Beatles had been turned down many times until one engineer, looking for a new act at EMI agreed to audition them. Even then, he was not awestruck, but it was their mix of personalities he liked. He thought, "maybe there is a #1 hit in them, somewhere". Well, you know the rest of the mantra.....

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