john

What makes a song great?

51 posts in this topic

I hear the same of using a songwriting process, or any formal approach to Songwriting... as if both creativity and emotion are neutered by using these approaches. In the case of writing I find that tends to come from misunderstanding and often a feeling of self-righteous superiority. I often find that artists who assert this like to think they are "free", but from my perspective I tend to think they are in a rut of recycled thoughts and ideas. Not always by any means.

 

Similarly arguments against making money from music are often cited by those same people.

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I actually had a bit more time and read back...

 

I don't think Jim123 was denigrating academic analysis, or indeed saying that he doesn't analyse, formally or informally... more that for him, "liking" feels like a gut reaction to the song.

 

However, I too would bet that an academic analysis of good songs would be likely to produce a better hit rate of songs that Jim123 would have a good gut reaction to.

 

The fact is we all analyse, all the time. We judge creativity by a great number of measures. Exactly what appeals to our taste may appear to be fairly individual, but that doesn't mean that it isn't predictable.The simple fact is that if you can work out what appeals to you about the songs that you like, and you can distill that down into set factors... you will be able to analyse those factors and then use that knowledge within your writing process to increase the likeability of your songs.

 

I guess it also depends on what we consider to be "academic". I would say that anything that uses knowledge, study and learning falls into this category.

 

I mean, simple grammar can affect likeability. We may well suspect that an element of poor grammar works within certain songs, but even then there are limits.There are rules about language, rhyme, rhythm... all of those can be measured.

 

We can also know that hooks placed in certain places tend to be more effective. Similarly, we know using the title within the song can have a positive effect on the song being remembered.... and so on.

 

Analysis doesn't stop there in terms of usefulness.

 

Does all that correlate to a successful song? No.

 

In mathematics you can learn how to manipulate numbers, you can learn techniques, formulae etc. However to then use those mathematical skills to come up with a theory of the universe, takes a combination of knowledge, skills, analysis AND creativity.

 

To use creativity without the others can condemn you to wandering around going nowhere fast.

 

The same is true about using reaction without a framework or understanding the context of the reaction.

 

If you use what you learn, you can guide your future writing so that you are more likely to create a song with broad and strong appeal.

 

My sister is a senior lecturer in Psychology. Her expertise is language and how it is used and understood. Marketers use their knowledge of language all the time, in order to manipulate us into liking and buying. Advertising is founded on this knowledge. As is brand creation.

 

The point is, if you think that knowledge, understanding, analysis has nothing to do with likeability or predicting likeability, or improving your ability to create more likeable songs... you are kidding yourself.

 

If you don't think that you do that as a listener, even informally, you are really, really kidding yourself. Otherwise, how on earth do you assess anything? Likeability is just as measurable and almost as predictable as anything else.Of course it is not absolutely dead set, because it still relies upon your creativity in applying your knowledge (just like the mathematics)

 

Cheers

 

John

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Yeah, I agree with all that. 

 

All music lives within a very rich, layered and intricate set of pre-existing expectations. To a large degree, a person's reaction to a given piece of music has to do more with how the piece measures up against those expectations. Maybe it follows them, or maybe it goes against them, maybe it follows too closely, or not closely enough, or it does in some ways but not in others. There's nothing inherently good or bad about an AABA structure, for example, but we all have an enormous backlog in our memories of having heard music in that structure, so the next AABA song we hear will in part be judged in how it stacks up against that backlog. This is true whether or not we even know what an AABA structure is. You don't have to know anything about nerve endings to know that a kitten feels fuzzy, but you will pet a kitten because of your past experience with kittens. And you will choose the fuzzier kitten because that fills your kitten requirement, but if given a plate of calamari, you will (hopefully) not eat it if it is fuzzy. All based on prior experience. Analysis of music looks at those expectations. If some music scholar comes along and says "92% of all popular songs written between 1953 and 1972 used the AABA structure", that's a valuable piece of information in the fact that it tells us where the expectations of people who's bulk of musical experience is in those songs is likely to react to a song that does or does not follow that structure.

 

As people valiantly attempting to entertain listeners with our own musical creations, we owe it to ourselves to know those expectations up front. Not so we will follow them, but so we can be better judges of how our music will be received. Mozart is credited with saying there are only two rules to music composition. 1) You cannot give the audience what they are expecting, and 2) What you give them must be better than what they were expecting. You have to know those expectations first to be able to do that. This is music analysis.

 

If someone asks you to throw a party, you can't even start to plan it without getting some basic questions answered: "What's the occasion?" "What kind of people will be there?" "What kind of party is it going to be?" etc. etc. You are doing this to assess your guests' expectations. The success of the party is not entirely pre-determined by how closely those expectations are met, but it is essential to know what they are before you start planning. Musical analysis says things like "That was a really fun party because the food was delicious" or "I only had an ok time because there were too many little kids there". This is valuable analysis. While it is fine to say "I had a good time and we'll leave it at that", you aren't giving your hosts, or yourself any opportunity to learn.

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Jim of Seattle, if you go back and read my 2 posts you'll see I repeat the phrase "to me" several times. This means my opinions expressed are "my" opinions addressed to what makes a song great to "me" ......... that means I'm *NOT* addressing what makes a song great to you or anyone else.

 

A thousand different people can have a thousand "different" reasons as to why a song is great to them. All, absolutely *ALL*, of those reasons are 100% valid. It's ok for people to not have precisely "your" reasons, or "my" reasons, regarding why or why not they consider any particular song great or not. Diversity exists whether we like it or not.

 

I think "Over The Rainbow" is one of the greatest and most interesting songs ever written. Another person may think "Over The Rainbow" is a terrible song of no interest at all. *BOTH* views are 100% valid for each of these 2 people.

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No worries, I was just defending musical analysis is all, 

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I agree that the "why" of a great song is personal, but also universal at the same time. Sure we all have songs that we consider great but that never reached much commercial success or that lead others to just roll their eyes when we say "this is my song!" But the universal part is that we are all hard-wired for music--but just wired differently. Some of us are wired for the percussive aspects and always tune into the rhythm first and the rest follows. Others are wired for melodies that help the lyrics to sing. Still others love a soulful harmony and the melody is just along for the ride. These natural inclinations lead us into various musical experiences that further develop these preferences while also building appreciation for other aspects of music that we are perhaps less drawn to.

 

Quick aside--While taking a psychology course on sensation and perception in college, I asked the professor about something that I observed. I was part of an a cappella (singing 2nd alto) with 14 women and many arrangements were 8-12 part harmony and I mentioned that I found it easier to hear the alto voice parts than the soprano. So my question was "Is there a link between vocal range and auditory acuity?". The professor didn't have an explanation at the time and I never went looking for one, but over the years I did develop my own explanation: how we engage with a piece of music is driven by how it triggers our natural capacities (words, rhythm, melody, harmony, vocal range, memory for time and place, etc) and the emotions conveyed along each of those paths.

 

So what this boils down to from my perspective is that a great song hooks you in those areas that your are most responsive to but then takes you further--so that other aspects of the song that are typically of less interest become an indivisible part of the whole experience. 

 

In recent memory "Colder Weather" from Zac Brown Band did this for me. I'm most drawn to harmonies and lyrics, but  I knew from the first time I heard the opening bars that I was in for something special. Then the lyrics transported me back to "Please Come to Boston" by Loggins. Next, the harmonies were spot on--matching the plaintive lyrics. And then the cow bell near the end added percussive insistence to the song's message. When's the last time a cow bell spoke to you? Greatness.

 

 

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On 6/4/2016 at 9:10 AM, Timbre said:

Next, the harmonies were spot on--matching the plaintive lyrics. And then the cow bell near the end added percussive insistence to the song's message. When's the last time a cow bell spoke to you? Greatness.

 

 

 

Form me, cowbell is the key to a great song. ;)

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Excellent answer! Can't have too much cowbell :thumbsup2:

 

DSC02154 (250x198).jpg

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That pic made my day! The triangle? Don't get me started!

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Used every one of 'em, on multiple occasions I promise :D

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I listened to Pink Floyd's Money last night. That has got to be the epitome of a great song: great arrangement, great lyrics, great solo, great bass line... I must have listened to that song hundreds of times in my youth and it still sounds great. It definitely stands the test of time.

Edited by BenStoller
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I hope you don't mind me asking a question..

 

Do you feel there have been any great songs written in the past 5 to 10 years, that have made it into the music charts?

 

Songs nowadays are written by committee to try and pull on all the things that they think makes a song great. Which is why someone mentioned about all Country songs sound the same now (I watched that video and it was an eye-opener and I don't like Country music).

 

From what John said earlier, music is now written to try and grab at part of our physiological make-up, to throw as much in to a song, hoping that one part of it might grab the listener and make them like the song enough to go out and buy it.

 

To me, some of the best music is still being created by the unknowns, the small bands, the ones who take risks musically, the ones who have a decent following but will never really trouble the charts.

 

And that brings up another question, should we still put as much emphasis on a song being good because it gets to number one. When I was growing up, getting into the top 10 was an achievement, getting to number one was seen as a song being a great song, because you had to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to get there, so it was seen as a barometer of what made a great song.

 

Now you can stream a song and it counts towards a chart position, but again this is all controlled by a select couple of companies, that have the money to push their brand into the public consciousness as to what you should like and buy.

 

I know we will never get back to what we had because of the Internet, but at some point I am hoping that the younger generation in particular stop being hoodwinked into liking certain music and go out and explore what else is out there and what has come before. Every musician is influenced from what they heard growing up, I wish they would put that out there more, so the newer fans might go out and listen to the stuff that influenced their 'heroes'!!!!!

 

Cheers 

Edited by Richard Tracey
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28 minutes ago, Richard Tracey said:

Do you feel there have been any great songs written in the past 5 to 10 years, that have made it into the music charts

 

Just saw this post and it made me look at the charts for the first time in about 10 years ;)  Can't say I've kept up... 

 

Anyway I listened to many from the top 30 (apart from Coldplay since they didn't have a 'listen' button) and it made me feel even older than I already felt. So... thanks for that!! ;)

 

I didn't spot anything I personally think is 'great' in today's top 30 but in 10 years there have certainly been some great ones, in my opinion....not that I've kept up with the charts but I'm sure it's safe to assume they were chart songs if I was hearing them everywhere.

 

 

 

 

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8 minutes ago, MonoStone said:

 

Just saw this post and it made me look at the charts for the first time in about 10 years ;)  Can't say I've kept up... 

 

Anyway I listened to many from the top 30 (apart from Coldplay since they didn't have a 'listen' button) and it made me feel even older than I already felt. So... thanks for that!! ;)

 

I didn't spot anything I personally think is 'great' in today's top 30 but in 10 years there have certainly been some great ones, in my opinion....not that I've kept up with the charts but I'm sure it's safe to assume they were chart songs if I was hearing them everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

I think there are a lot of gems out there and there have been a few really good songs in the charts (and good artists) but there is an over-reliance on  the popular songs to sound the same. I buy the new Now That's What I Call albums for my kids and I am lucky if I hear one song that I like.

 

i am always of the belief that each artist, will have one song you like at some point in their career, whether you like them or not. I really don't like Oasis, but like Wonderwall as an example.

 

I would just like it if there was somewhere for the newer musician/songwriter to be heard in a better way. Is YouTube, Soundcloud etc the answer? We now have Soundcloud looking to sell for $1b.... Who has that kind of money? Some big corporation who will be looking to make more money to the detriment of the artist.

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Hi

 

Just listening to Revolver as I read this, so no current charts for me    :rolleyes:

 

It's such a personal thing.

 

I love a song/music with a good story.  When I was a kid I used to listen to the words very carefully.  It didn't really matter to me much who was singing the song.  I still listen to the same stuff I did back then, so I suppose that still matters most to me. 

 

I can also remember crying myself to sleep as a youngster and my mother coming into my room and asking what was wrong and I said it was the music making me cry.  What music, she said, there isn't any music.   I meant as it was still in my head from school.  That wasn't a song, though, it was Prokofiev's  Peter and The Wolf.

 

One of my favourite songs was always Lonely Boy by Andrew Gold.  I was always fascinated by the fact that anyone who didn't understand English wouldn't know it was a sad story!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Music is what emotion sounds like.   I can't remember who made the quote, but it embodies how I feel feel about any particular piece of music or song.  to me a great song has to make me feel and feel strongly.  As an example, Stairway to Heaven is considered by many to be the greatest rock song ever......It never moved me, never generated any feelings, and so it's always been towards the bottom of my list of favorites.  So go figure, why I would think that "I love Rock n Roll" by Joan Jett is a great song.....she can't sing per se, the song is simple and the lyrics aren't that great......but somehow the combination catapults the song way past what the components are individually......it's a song that makes me want to move, to yell "Hell yeah!"  The thing is....and I think it may be true for most everyone, what we think is a great song will change according to our emotional state at the time. 

 

A last question.....If Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were stranded on a deserted island together.....who survives?

Answer:  America

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I think a good song is at once familiar and foreign, containing elements of the expected and mundane while having some distinct characteristic that separates it from its competition. The songs of Bacharach and David, for example, are incredibly familiar sounding but if you listen to the stuff he's doing musically it's hardly what you would call common or garden. The Beatles too were masters of what  might be referred  to as the "deceptively simple" style. 

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What makes a great song?
    When I saw this forum post and read the comments, I realized I had some homework to do.  I personally couldn't give a general statement to answer this without listening to specific songs to see what draws me to those songs specifically and break down what I think makes it a great song.  Instantly, I thought there was variation from song to song in what it was that drew me to them.  This is about my specific taste in what I think makes a great song as I do think music is very personal, just like reading books.  
     When I thought of this, I instantly recognized there are distinct vibes songs give off that I had to categorize as well as the impact they have on me, so this might be rather lengthy, but detailed and specific  to each song so that I could pick up on consistencies, so that I might be able to at least come near to stating what I think makes for a great song.

 

Category A:  Favorite Percussive/pulse driven songs. These are songs that feed me energy, make me want to move my body to the beat and sing along.
1.  Simon and Garfunkel - Cecelia
Cecelia has a fun pulse with snaps and claps and drums that set a rhythm/pulse that makes me want to move my body and sing along.
The harmonies are one factor that make this song easy to sing along with and pleasing to the ear
Cecelia has some pretty sad lyrics, but the music gives it an upbeat and comical take
2. Phillip Phillips - Home
The drum rhythm and tempo make this song have a pulse that energizes me
It has a catchy melody with just the right amount of variation throughout the song
Harmonies add interest to this song and it has vocal interest and a fun vibe
3.  I Will Wait For You - Mumford and Sons
The repeat, "I will wait, I will wait, for You" is a fun and catchy line, It has a good, memorable hook line.
Excellent banjo playing
Vocal emotion and  interest is a strength in this song
the harmonies
The tempo, rhythm--pulse of the song is fun and energizing
There is just right variation throughout the song
It has a good, memorable hook line
4.  Fleetwood Mac - The Chain
This is another pulse driven song that makes me want to sing along and move
The excellence in skill with instruments is a big plus in this song
The vocal modulation and harmonies add interest, intensity/passion to the song
It has a catchy melody and the vocal chase of the hook-line with background vocals add texture to the song
Good spacing between singing and music, musical solos, great vocal blending and so much intensity built into the song throughout.
5.  Queen - We Will Rock You 
Invites participation with simplicity the combo of clapping out the rhythm  and a capella to the beginning of the song.
Harmonies make it fun for a group to sing along
The hookline is memorable and the melody is catchy--vocal contrast between the verses and refrain
Just right variation throughout the song
Queen's voice adds vocal interest
Summary:  These songs all share features of being pulse-driven songs, having well-blended harmonies, excellent skill and blending of instruments, memorable hooklines, vocal interest and just right variation throughout the song and are emotionally energizing.

Category B - Intense, Emotion Driven Songs (with a vocal/musical connect) 
1.  Alannah Myles - Black Velvet
This song is set to an excellent pulse with the drum beat
It has excellent use of instruments
Fabulous vocal quality, modulation, interest, expression, intensity and soul
vocal melody variation that adds interest
2.  Taylor Swift - Blank Space
The song starts with a great pulse
It has interest and variation in the vocal melody
Vocal expression/passion
Lots of variation throughout the song
Timing
Crescendo/build up
a strenth is the integration of background and lead vocals
Interesting lyrics
3.    Hozier - Take Me To Church On Time
Intensity in vocals, melody and lyrics 
emotionally evocative in both music and vocals
Great use of instruments
Has a great pulse
4.  Etta James - At last
vocal interest, passion/emotion/soul
Great rhythm
vocal modulation and intensity/expression
pauses in music for effect
Melody
5.  Selah - Bless The Broken Road
Arrangement
Intensity in music and vocals, vocal interest/passion/emotion/soul
integration of lead/background vocals, harmonies
Instrument choice
variation of soft to intense in the song
Lyrics that connect emotionally
Pauses in music for effect
Melody
Great outro
6.  Moody Blues - Nights in White Satin
Rhythm/pulse
Emotion/intensity/Modulation in vocals, vocal interest
Excellence in instrument use
Build-up/crescendo of chorus with a dinstinct emphasis on percussion at the end
Soft to intense
emotionally evocative
Music melody blends well with vocals
7.  Leonard Cohen - Hallelujah (Rufus Wainright version)
Instrumentation 
Modulation in vocal expression, emotion 
Intensity in vocals and music and lyrics
Lyrically interesting
Memorable hook line and melody
builds up and softens
Emotionally evocative
Arrangement
Summary:  most of these songs share passion/emotion in the vocals, some degree of intensity and variation in melody and vocals, good use of timing for effect, and a great pulse for the songs and appear to be strongest in the area of intensity/emotion.

C.  Beautiful, emotionally connecting songs with more lyric connect and vocal focus.
1.  Eva Cassidy version - Fields of Gold (Sting)
Vocal passion/interest/emotion/soul
Great lyrics
buildup and softening in intensity, changes in vocal modulation and intensity
simple, clear, well-timed finger picking and piano key strikes
arrangement
an interesting vocal melody.
2.  Eric Clapton - Tears in Heaven
Vocal emotion, soul
rhythm
Lyrics that emotionally connect
intensity built into the vocal melody
excellence in use of instruments
minor chords mixed in adds interest
3.  Sarah McLaughlin - I Will Remember You
Vocal modulation, soft to intense
Lyrics that connect emotionally
Memorable and easy to sing hook line
vocal interest/emotion/passion/soul
fitting outro
4.  Ed Sheeran- Thinking Out Loud
Rhythm/tempo combo
The fit of melody to his vocals
vocal emotion/intensity/soul/expression/modulation - vocal interest
variation throughout the song
Lyrics that connect emotionally
5.  Alysson Krauss - When You Say Nothing at All
vocal expression, timining, modulation, interest
intensity - soft to intense
Hook-line packs a punch
Excellent use of instruments
Excellent outro
6.  Lee Ann Womack - I Hope You Dance
Lyrics that connect emotionally
vocal expression, timing, modulation, interest
intensity - soft to intense
Hook-line packs a punch
Excellent use of instruments
Excellent outro
timing of vocal/musical pauses
blend of lead vocals with background vocals

Summary:  These songs share an Intensity in their music and vocals, they're emotionally evocative, use musical and vocal modulation and timing well, lyrics that connect emotionally and excellent use of instruments. 

D.  Fun, light, airy (some), bouncy
1.  Colby Callait - Bubbly Face
Fun lyrics that connect
fun melody - catchy
clear, isolated guitar picking
quality vocals and expressive, singable range
melody picks up in tempo
fun, catchy hook line/chorus
timing, good use of musical/vocal pause
fun bridge - scatting
softening of music and vocals for outro
2.  Sarah McLaughlin - Ice Cream
Fun rhythm
fun lyrics that connect emotionally
vocals expressive, quality modulation
variation throughout the song
scatting
fun refrain/hook line
3.  Alanis Morrisette - Hand in My Pocket
Rhythm
vocals are expressive, modulation, vocal intensity
fun lyrics
catchy melody
Hook line, "I got one hand in my pocket" with a surprising variation at the end of this line
great interspersion of music solo, harmonica
4. Sheryl Crow - All I wanna Do
Fun rhythm and pace
Fun lyrics, melody
singable for most
catchy, fun and memorable hook line
5.  Creedance Clearwarter - Out My Backdoor
Fun rhythm/tempo
fun, catchy hook line, memorable
Unique quality to vocals
excellence with instruments
variation within the song
fun slow up and timing on the outro
easy to sing along
Summary:  The qualities these songs share that make them great songs is their, bouncy air, scatting in some, fun and catchy lyrics, melody, pace,  hook lines, easy to sing along with.

E.  Easy listening, More Harmonically focussed songs
1. Eagles - Take it Easy
Catchy lyrics
memorable, catchy hook lline
interesting melody
interesting lyrics
singable, great harmonizing, 
smooth vocals, melody, background vocals
excellent blending of lead and background vocals.
2.  Fleetwood Mac - Rihannon
Rhythm is smooth, drums set good pace
harmonies on hook line and in other places are a strength
excellent guitar playing
singable melody
great blend of background and lead vocals.
3. Elton John - Rocket Man
Vocal modulation/expression
interesting lyrics
memorable hook line
drums add intensity
background vocals add interest
variation in vocals throughout
singable
4.  Dixie Chicks - Wide Open Spaces
Blend of instruments
Harmonies
Rhythm
Great lyrics
Vocal expression/modulation
Smooth melody
memorable hook line
Variation in the vocal melody
Excellent fiddle playing
singable
interesting lyrics
5.  Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb (Might have this mis-categorized - I think this also fits category B)
Excellence in drums, guitar, violin, music melody and instrumental blend
vocals are smooth and the harmonies are well-blended
interesting lyrics
special effects
memorable hook line
crescendo in music (vocal breaks)

Summary - These songs don't "generally" focus on intensity/build up, but more on mental comfort zone easy listening.  They send you in a zone and unlike the more intense songs like in Category B, leave you in a mental ease.  These songs tend to be fairly singable, have excellence and focus on harmonies, have memorable hook lines, excellence in use of instruments, and smooth vocals. 
Pink Floyd's, Comfortably Numb (as well as many others of theirs, I suspect) doesn't neatly fit into a category and crosses over causing a bit of a contradiction between intensity and easy listening. 

F.  Smooth Molasses and Grit - Vocally Driven
1. Susan Tedeschi - Wait For Me
Smooth molasses vocals and music
Vocal modulation/expression and interest
repeat phrases with emotion
gravelly and molasses smooth vocals
Excellence on drums, piano, guitar and mixing of instruments
Instruments use on vocal breaks
melody, groove
2.  Tracy Chapman - You Got a Fast Car
Rhythm
Repeat phrases
memorable hook line
interesting vocals/vocal timing
interesting bridge with variation of intensity and contrast to verse melody
interesting story line to the lyrics
interesting melody
3.  Bonnie Raitt - I Can't Make You Love Me
 vocal smoothness and thickness
memorable melody and hook line
drums and use of instruments for a smooth sound
4.  Nora Jones - Come Away With Me
Smooth music - piano, brass cymbals w/ brush and guitar
Smooth molasses vocals and music
interesting lyrics
vocal expression and smooth vocal modulation
blend of instruments, especially on the vocal break
Music melody
Summary:  These songs share a smooth molasses vocal, excellent blending of instruments, a groove, great vocal expression and interesting music melody.

 

This was long, I got tired...I'm sure there's much to pick apart, but I think it gets more specific on what makes certain songs that have some similar, some differing qualities, great songs, depending upon what feel you're going for.  It was a good exercise for me and I noticed some patterns in style that help to make songs great.  Feel free to pick away.  That is something that helps me learn as well.  I left out a heap of great songs and artists.  I can't believe I didn't include Billy Joel, but have to stop somewhere!

 

 

 

Edited by Pahchisme Plaid
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@Pahchisme Plaid

 

Nice to see that it prompted not only some in-depth thought, but also some background research. Not only that, but you  learned from the exercise! Ideal! Research is vital for spotting trends. Not just pasttrends, but on point trends... because if you can be cutting edge you can  pus it further into ahead of the curve songs that stand a real chance of trend setting.

 

Great job on effort!

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On 10/3/2015 at 1:42 PM, john said:

what makes a song great?

 

After much thought... I know the answer - Me

 

 

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