What Makes a Song Good (7 Pro Tips)

What Makes a Song Good (7 Pro Tips) What Makes a Song Good (7 Pro Tips)

Have you ever pulled your headphones off after listening to your favorite song and thought, "how in the world is that track so good?"

Sometimes, there are melodies, chord progressions, and lyrics that find a way to linger in our brains and carve out niches into our very beings.

A truly great song is one that you'll remember forever.

Of course, pinpointing exactly what separates a mesmerizing track from a mediocre one can be tricky. With that said, if you’re aiming to transform your songwriting skills to make your songs more memorable, there are certain elements that have been consistent since the dawn of the modern song.

Here are some of our top songwriting tips to make your music resonate like never before.

1. A Memorable Melody or Hook

The heart of almost every great song is the chorus. Unless you're writing instrumental or electronic music, the most important part of that chorus is most likely vocal melody. This is the piece that your audience is likely to carry with them, humming and whistling long after the song ends.

That's why it's so crucial to focus your creative energy into creating a melody that's hard to forget.

However, it's important to note that the hook of your song doesn't have to be a vocal melody. In fact, it doesn't even have to be part of the chorus at all.

Some of the most iconic hooks in music history are instrumental riffs.

Think "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple.

The opening guitar riff is one of the most recognizable in rock history, and probably the most-learned riff for beginner guitarists.

"Money" by Pink Floyd is another great example.

The distinctive bass riff that opens the song sets up the mood (and the song's odd time signature), paving the way for listeners to step into another dimension.

Also, consider for a moment how many chart-topping hits you've heard over the decades that have stellar choruses, yet you can't remember the verses at all. The key takeaway here is the enduring power of a compelling chorus.

If you're able to write a killer chorus, you can write a song that will live on long after you're gone.

2. Soul and Emotion

While there are more tangible elements of songs that make them great, such as chord progressions and production, it's the emotional connection that often seals a song's place in your heart. Humans are keen to songs with deep emotional connections. It's the reason why a vocalist can sing a song that's not technically perfect, but if they're throwing all they have at it, it can make the hair on your neck stand up.

Music has a profound ability to touch us like anything else. Even if you're writing a song that stirs up unique emotions in you that you feel like some people wont understand, write it anyway. Even if you're listeners aren't going through the exact same thing, they'll recognize that it's personal to you.

Now, just because I'm saying a song can use emotion doesn't mean it needs to tug at the heartstrings.

There are endless emotions we can aim to channel, such as:

  • Joy (i.e. "Happy" by Pharrell Williams or "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and The Waves)
  • Anger (i.e. "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine or "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette)
  • Love (i.e. "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars or "Thinking Out Loud" by Ed Sheeran)
  • Fear (i.e. "Thriller" by Michael Jackson or "Bury a Friend" by Billie Eilish)
  • Nostalgia (i.e. "Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams or "The Night We Met" by Lord Huron)
  • Inspiration (i.e. "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor or "Rise Up" by Andra Day)

The ways in which you can express yourself in a song are endless, so get creative with it. The important thing is that those emotions are something you can connect to!

3. Superior Production Value

As a huge fan of Robert Johnson, I'll be the first to admit that production value isn't always going to make or break a song. Johnson could have recorded some of his most famous tracks in an echoey tiled bathroom for all I care, and they still would have been great songs.

However, that doesn't mean superior production value can't elevate a song, especially these days.

The 1960s were a fascinating era for music, as it was when artists and engineers truly started to hone in on music production, with the emergence of new technology and techniques.

Let's think of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band " for a moment. This was a revolutionary project that showed how the studio could be used as an instrument in itself. This album, along with others like The Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," introduced complex recording techniques, such as multi-tracking and layering, setting new standards for what could be achieved in music production.

Today, the importance of high-quality production is more prominent than ever, especially with electronic music, where everything comes down to the production.

With a crisp, clear, and well-balanced mix, you have a unique vessel to showcase a great song that might have otherwise fallen under the radar.

4. Effective Chord Progressions

When it comes to being a great songwriter, you don’t necessarily need to be a music theory guru. However, having a solid understanding of chord progressions is essential. Chords form the foundation of any good song, as they provide a harmonic structure that supports everything else, from melodies to rhythms.

Whether you’re laying down something funky like a Bbm7-Eb7 in a soul track or a staple D-A-G in a rock anthem, the chords you choose can set the emotional tone of your song. Knowing how to use them effectively can make all the difference.

One of the most popular chord progressions in western popular music is the I-V-vi-IV . In fact, it's so popular, the comedy music duo Axis of Awesome wrote a song about it:

So, what about this chord progression is so great?

Well, for starters, it’s inherently pleasing to the ear. It offers a satisfying sense of resolution and familiarity that audiences love, whether it's in pop, rock, country, or indie music.

Here are a few tips for writing a killer chord progression:

  • Experiment with Variations: Start with a standard progression like I-V-vi-IV, then change one or two chords to see how it affects the mood.
  • Consider the Mood You Want to Convey: Choose chords that reflect the emotions of your song. Minor chords, for example, can evoke sadness or tension, while major chords tend to be brighter and more uplifting. Listen to some of your favorite tracks and see what chords they're using to set the mood!
  • Use Tension and Release : Build tension with more dissonant or complex chords, then resolve to simpler, more consonant chords to give your listeners a sense of release.
  • Link it to your Melody: Make sure your chord progression supports your melody. Sometimes, all you need is a great melody to guide you to the right chords.

5. Memorable or Impactful Lyrics

Writing killer lyrics is key if you want a hit song that sticks around in people’s playlists.

If your words don’t grab people, chances are they won’t remember the tune after just one listen.

Take "Around the World" by Daft Punk, for example. The lyrics literally repeat themselves over and over again, yet you can't help but get them stuck in your head. It’s that catchy repetition that made it a global smash.

On the other hand, consider a song like Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody," which is on a whole other level of complexity. The lyrics are more theatrical, pulling you into a mini-drama that might take time to memorize but is still as catchy as any great pop song.

Even though there are countless songs that use the same basic chord progressions, like the classic I-V-vi-IV, it’s really the lyrics that make a song stand out and last. It's how your words connect with people.

If you want to write catchy lyrics that hit the mark, here are a few pointers:

  • Play with the senses: Throw in details that paint a picture or evoke feelings.
  • Spin a yarn: Make your lyrics tell a story that listeners can dive into.
  • Keep it real: Honest lyrics feel more relatable and genuine.
  • Get poetic: Use metaphors or similes to add some flair.
  • Stay on theme: Make sure your lyrics match the vibe of your tune.

6. Unpredictability

Unpredictability can really spice up a song, especially nowadays, where almost 120,000 songs are released each day on streaming platforms.

When songs throw you a curveball, it feels more memorable and stands out from the crowd.

Take "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead, for example.

This track is all over the place - in a good way. It swings from a mellow acoustic intro into a more aggressive, borderline electronic crescendo. All along the way, Yorke attacks heavy-handed themes like alienation. Every twist and turn of the track offers constant surprises, which is one of the reasons it's easy to listen to over and over without getting bored.

Going back to "Bohemian Rhapsody," you basically have several songs in one. Over the course of nearly six minutes, we get a little bit of rock, a touch of piano ballad, and a decent helping of opera, all of which flow smoothly into each other.

There are a few ways you can mix some unpredictability into your tracks:

  • Shake up the Song Structure : Try ditching the usual verse-chorus song structure and get creative with it. Toss in a random instrumental solo, switch up the tempo, or play around with key changes.
  • Get creative with Sounds: Experiment with unusual instruments or sounds, funky vocal effects, or fresh electronic samples to surprise your listeners. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is a great example of an artist that plays with expectations.
  • Flip the Script with Lyrics : Use wordplay, shift the theme out of nowhere, or build an unconventional storyline. Lil Wayne did it best when he penned "Real Gs move in silence like lasagna."

7. Dynamic Range

While it may not be the most important element, dynamic range is something you'll often find in great songs.

I'm referring to the highs and lows, whether in a song's volume, melodic phrasing, or instrumentation. For example, a singer might take a melodic leap into their higher register in the chorus to create a lift.

One of my favorite examples is Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight."

It starts off soft, haunting, and moody, all without any rhythmic pattern. Finally, you're hit with what might be the most iconic drum fill of all time before it explodes into the final chorus.

Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" is another prime example of a legendary song that uses dynamic range. It starts off with a gentle, acoustic intro that slowly builds into an intense, powerful progression with an electric guitar solo and a full-band climax.

There are a few ways you can approach adding dynamic range when writing music:

  • Start with a Plan: Map out where you want the quiet and loud sections in your song to be and follow that roadmap.
  • Incorporate Instrumental Breaks: By adding a solo or an instrumental break, you can add tonal and volume contrast.
  • Experiment with Instrumentation: Introduce or remove instruments at different parts of the song. For example, stripping down to an acoustic guitar or a piano during the verse can make the full band in the chorus feel more powerful.
  • Play with Vocal Dynamics: If you're singing, change the range or style between sections. You might stick to a whispery lower octave in the verses and belt it out in the choruses.

Final Thoughts - What Makes a Song Good?

Ask numerous music lovers what makes a song good, and you'll get different answers. A good song for one person might be the bane of another's existence. However, that's the beauty of good music - it's subjective.

With that said, if we look back decades into the music industry, we begin to uncover certain key characteristics that worm their way into popular songs. From catchy melodies to solid song structure and beyond.

If you're one of the many aspiring musicians out there looking to write great music, start by studying the legends that have successfully come before you and use what you hear in your own writing.

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