5) Do you think there are any Golden Rules for what makes a good song? To what extent do you feel your own music results from a reaction to music you don’t like?
Hannah Miller: I was crestfallen to discover that there exists a pop machine monster that calibrates data of what works commercially and has the broadest appeal etc and then simply shits out an amalgamation of this data, the perfect pop song. However, I do think it is fascinating to observe what people respond to- certain keys, note patterns- and also, for example that a vast amount of western music is at walking pace, in 4/4…I dont know about golden rules though. Hooks, memorable melodies, repetions are important.
The bad thing about music is how market-centric it has become, and how, so very often, people think music is good simply because they have been told that its good, and the emphasis is frequently on image and a ‘sound’ rather than content or songwriting.
The good thing about music is that it brings very different people together to have a good time, and basically, we just want to play and have a nice time. One aim of making a record is to enjoy the music you have engendered, so it will probably have elements of the music you really enjoy within it. We use our time and our money to make music so we are not going to bother making something we dont believe in.
Paul Hawkins: It’s not exactly that my music comes from a reaction to music I don’t like so much as I just feel there aren’t enough people making the kind of songs I do like. I mean there’s a lot of bands around that are good at what they do but I feel like I go to gigs or listen to bands and it seems like I know how the songs are gonna go before I’ve heard them and it’s very rare I feel genuinely surprised by a band. In terms of golden rules for what makes a good song the only ones I can think of is to be interesting and to avoid being too predictable. Everything else comes down to individual preference.
Jeremy Warmsley: Second part of the question first: yes, it used to. I was specifically trying not to sound like other singer-songwriters. (This is back in the heady days of 2004/5 before every singer-songwriter worth his salt had a copy of Fruity Loops and “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn”.) At least in terms of production. Now I don’t give a damn. I just make music that feels good when I listen to it. Less preconceptions, that’s the key.
Napoleon IIIrd: Sometimes my music will remind me of other songs, songs that I don’t like, generally this amuses me so I embrace it. I like to challenge myself in these small ways. I certainly don’t think that there are any rules to song writing, I ignore music theory and use my ears, if it works then it works as far as I am concerned.
Capitol K: Rhythm.. melody… emotion ..
Ill Ease: There isn’t a lot of music I don’t like or can’t appreciate on some level. I think when I was a teenager, there was more music that I thought I didn’t like – like pop music in general. But in retrospect I think that that was more of a reaction to how it was presented and packaged and marketed than to the music itself.
I don’t personally think there are any golden rules for making a good song but I do think there are definitely rules and conventions that most listeners will recognize and immediately feel comfortable with. People like songs that they can sing along to the second time they hear it. Music that follow certain rules and conventions that have been established over the last 50 years (3 minutes and 30 seconds long; verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle 8/verse/chorus) is what people feel comfortable with and because they feel comfortable with it and it’s predictable, they’re more likely to react positively to it.
I personally find a lot of those conventions boring… After 50 years of that formula, I feel like its pretty played out…. And, yeah, I think my music is largely a reaction to them…. I think that, historically, the modernist reaction was to work against them, to defy conventions and expectations in very clear and obvious ways. I personally am more drawn to what I think is more of a post-modern reaction which tries to create music that is aware of those conventions — their historical importance and their cultural weight — and uses them in interesting ways – ways that are recognizable to the listener as familiar — but uses them in an unfamiliar way which ultimately, I think, creates more of an awareness of what those conventions are and, I think, creates more of an openness for an appreciation of music outside of those conventions. To me, that’s what makes a good song. And maybe still being able to sing along to it the second time you hear it.
Mat Riviere: I don’t know if there’s golden rules for what makes a good song. There’s a fairly broad range of songs which I feel are successful. I think my own music is more a reaction to music I do like. At one point in the writing/recording there has to be a moment where I get excited by the idea and possibilities of the song. If this doesn’t happen I normally give up.
Spencer McGarry: I would say that in order to have a successful pop song the most important thing to do is to work within your idiom but change something slightly so it is both familiar and exciting.
Off the top of my head-
Repetition, especially of an unusual vocal tic or noise is helpful too. Think of ‘Believe’ by Cher, an utterly average song to the ears until the extreme auto-tune section which is constantly repeated and thereafter anticipation by the listener, both in enjoyment and as a source of ridicule. Most recently we have the Blackout Crew’s ‘Put a Donk on it’ which is the classic compound case of a song about a song/movement that also contains the noise being sung about. It is about it’s movement but is also of its movement, like the ‘Let’s Twist Again’ , La Bambe etc. Sparks have a great technique involving a humorous phrase repeated ad nauseum until it becomes unforgettable, this is effective when coupled with a pun e.g- “Baby Can I Invade Your Country?” with the emphasis on the first five letters of ‘Country’.
Other recent unusual vocal tics have been heard in the massively popular song “Umbrella” with it’s refrain of “ella, ella” which is a good example of an unusual element within a familiar modern song structure including the obligatory rapular introduction from Jay Z, providing immeasurable introductory credibility to the artist. Crucially with this, it is the unusual effect which made the song a hit rather than the performance or the strength of melody etc. An attempt at what I like to called ‘The ella effect’ was repeated by Flo Rida and Timbaland last year with his now forgotten ‘Elevator’ which featured the repeat of the same delivery of ‘ella’ perhaps in cheeky reference. This song was not a hit and demonstrates the need in pop for the shock of the new.
Extreme vocal limits has traditionally been very popular, currently Falsetto in male vocals is the vogue in much of the Prince influenced R’N’B but in the fifties, pop music had allot of time of the deep voice- and later the Beach Boys combined both and were very successful in terms of pop music sales and are consistently so (think of the chorus to ‘Help me Rhonda’ and the excitement and merriment it generates when sung, particularly by one individual attempting all the parts). Other popular hit songs including what sounds like a full range include ‘I’m a lonely Boy’, ‘Monster Mash’, and ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’
Lyrical tactics are of course the inclusion of a girls name, demonstrated to its ironic conclusion by Beautiful South’s ‘Song For Whoever’ and the current trend in pop for songs of un-conditional love from the female perspective which are perceived to be popular both amongst females (who it is supposed, crave the ideal) and males (who it is supposed are free to carry on however they please with whomever during this ‘un-conditional’ surrender by the female). A timely mention of current events- The Beatles ‘Revolution’, Catatonia’s ‘Road Rage’, ‘Mulder and Skully’, allot of early Beach Boys songs, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ is also a feature of an admittedly smaller branch of hit songs, occasionally this can be purely accidental.
An unusual noise can be helpful- Gary Newman’s ‘Cars’ and ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and Soft Cell’s cover of ‘Tainted Love’.
A reworking or feature of an obvious sample Kanye West’s ‘Touch The Sky’ Madonnna’s ‘Caught Up’ and MC Hammer’s ‘You Can’t Touch This’ can often guarantee a hit.
There are probably more examples and more rules but I think I should stop there. As for myself I no longer seem to have taste in music. As I get older I am fascinated and interested in almost everything I come into contact with. Last year for example I was mainly excited about Madonna and ABBA (who’s hit single success ratio has been attributed to a canny insight into the harmonically commercial relationship between minor verses and major choruses see my favourite example ‘SOS’). I am also interested in songs I would describe as’ all-chorus’ examples being ‘Reet Petit’, ‘Mixed Bizness’ by Beck and the divine ‘Biology’ by Girls Allowed. I now find myself influenced by everything I hear on the radio and can perhaps no longer say (for good or ill) that I dislike a genre with the current possible exception of Dub and House- but experience has told me that may change.
Laura Wolf: If I am to like a song then it either has to be crazily rhythmic and fun (this explains the noisier/more avant end of my musical taste), or, essentially, a fairly regularly structured pop song with a great chorus and interesting/heartfelt lyrics. I have to try really hard if I am to like anything that falls outside of these categories.
From writing songs in Internet Forever I have determined the following Golden Rules:
1. Go out with people you know are wrong for you just so you’ll have emo shit to write about when you inevitably break up
2. Only use the chords D, C, F and A (and rearrange/omit as necessary)
3. If you use the word “we” in a chorus it’ll instantly become anthemic
The following structures are the only ones you need (always end with a repeat chorus!):
1. Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Chorus
2. Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Chorus
3. Verse, Chorus, Verse, Verse, Chorus, Chorus
Jeremy Warmsley: First half: I have a few little rules that I try to stick to unless it seems necessary to break them. It’s all freakin’ obvious but sometimes it helps to have this stuff written down. Actually looking at it most of it is arrangement stuff rather than songwriting stuff.
I like stuff to be well-played, sung, in time, in tune, sonically appealing, unless there’s a really good reason not to be (like capturing the rawness of a performance, which of course has its place). I like it when singers mess around with the phrasing of a vocal.
I like it when the melody rises in the chorus, and for the music to get louder. (Sometimes you want the melody to go lower and/or the music to get quieter. The point is, some kind of dynamic shift).
In arrangements, it’s really nice to have a second part that weaves in and out of the vocal, filling in the bits when there’s no singing. Sometimes this can be a written part, sometimes improvised “comping”, but it’s good.
It’s really nice to have a cool thing that only happens once in the song. (Or several different cool things). Like on Rebellion (lies) by Arcade Fire, there’s a handclap before the last chorus that literally just happens once. Every time I hear it it makes me grin.
That’s all I can think of offhand. Oh, one other thing. Probably the key to a good song is a good idea, well executed. Actually that’s probably the key to most good things everywhere. Oh, except for happy accidents. Well, that’s it…
What’s this all about?
links to other questions in this conversation are here