Let me start off by saying that I don’t believe there is a single approach to writing a good song. Obviously there are many different reasons for a song to be called “good”. It can be good because it’s catchy or good because it’s subtle. It can be good because the musicianship is amazing or it can be good because the musicians can barely play. It can be good because it’s meaningful or it can be good because it’s meaningless. It can be good because it’s popular or good because it’s obscure. It can be good because it relaxes you or good because it makes you want to get in a fight.
In fact, I think attempting to define what makes a song good often leads only to formulaic and contrived writing that tries to please everyone – but actually appeals to no one. Don’t let anyone (including me) tell you what makes your song good. You may disagree with most or all of what I say. You might even end up writing a great song by doing exactly the opposite of what I say. Great! Then you’ve just confirmed one of your own songwriting principles and you can share it with us! My goal here is to inspire you and/or give you a new way to approach your songwriting. Hopefully I’ll help you to discover how you write a good song.
I’ve learned not just from what I’ve done right but – just as importantly – from mistakes I’ve made that ended in bland and uninspiring songs. I hope to help you avoid being stuck with a bad song and make it easier for you to write great songs.
If we can’t define what makes a good song, we can at least establish that there are well-crafted and poorly-crafted songs. Let’s use furniture as an analogy:
Two chairs. One was handcrafted from solid quarter sawn oak by a master furniture maker and topped off with a hand-rubbed finish. The other was bought at a discount furniture store for $30 and made from a clever mixture of “real wood” sawdust and glue. Even if you’re a cynical contrarian – you can not seriously believe there isn’t a difference in quality. You might not like the style of the handcrafted chair but you can’t deny it is a vastly better chair. It’s solid and beautiful and will likely remain so for decades – even centuries. The discount chair, on the other hand, will never be comfortable or beautiful and you’ll be lucky to have it 2-3 years before it falls apart beneath you.
So what’s the difference? Simple: the better chair was made with better materials, with more care, by a better builder with the goal of making something good and lasting. The cheap chair was made with junk materials with the goal of a quick sale and little thought to longevity.
So “good” in this sense is definable. We’re talking about craftsmanship here – something that is good regardless of likes, tastes, or trends. I assume because you’re reading this that the quality of your art is important to you. I think there’s a real lack of well-crafted songs out there and I hope to help you be the exception.
Popular Does Not Equal Good
Popular and good are not mutually exclusive terms. If you’re an artist, you should write for you first (and arguably only). Usually, when you try to write for an audience, your songs will end up being mediocre. Why? Because you can’t please everyone. If you try to, you’ll end up watering down the song, it won’t truly come from you, and you and your listeners will end up disappointed. When you’re writing (and especially when you’re in the first stages of writing the song) pretend that no one will ever hear this song. Write purely for the joy of writing. Tell your inner editor to take the day off before you begin working on your song. There’s always time later to change things – but don’t let self-doubt and self-criticism get you stuck before you get started.
The irony is that you will usually write your best songs when you’re not trying. I’ve talked to countless songwriters whose biggest hit was an afterthought – something they recorded just for fun thinking no one else would like it. Instead of trying to figure out what people will like, make something you love. Chances are a lot of other people will love it too.
In Song Craftsmanship Part 2, I’ll talk about specific things you can do to make your song better.
Jonah Brockman is an independent music producer and engineer dedicated to empowering songwriters with the resources they need to make great music. Visit jonahbrockman.com for more information, rates, and work examples.