What Makes a Song Good?

When I was sixteen years old, I didn’t know who I was. I, like so many others at that age, was more concerned with fitting in and having “friends” than knowing myself and understanding what I actually liked or wanted. While trying to fit in, I did a lot of things and held a lot of beliefs that weren’t true to myself; I dyed my hair constantly, ate lots of junk food, smoked weed, listened to metal music, thought that school was lame and overrated, and, of course, I hated pop music.

My dad was driving me home from school one day when the new Coldplay single Paradise came on the radio. Of course, I hadn’t listened to Cold Play beyond their radio hits but still felt inclined to shed my all-mighty wisdom over the subject of good music.

“Ew, Coldplay,” I scoffed, “their old music is good, but their new stuff totally sucks,” I said, not in an “eh, it’s not for me,” kind of way, but in a sovereign, “my-view-of-the-world-is-objective-law” kind of way. And then my dad dropped the big philosophical question which would eventually set in motion a massive paradigm shift in my early life:

“Why do you think that?”

Well, me and my big ego quickly stuttered out a half-baked retort, “it’s just a pile of pop-garbage made by a bunch of sellouts!” Of course, at the time, I didn’t think about the fact that I was only spouting nonsense that was passed around by the punks I spent most of my time with. But it’s a great question that’s worth being asked more than once in your lifetime:

What makes music good or bad? And more importantly, can the quality of music be measured by objective standards?

I submit that it most certainly can!

It is classically argued that x is a good y if it successfully carries out the task which it was created to perform. For example, a knife is created with the intention of cutting objects; therefore, a good knife is one that is sharp and cuts through objects easily.

Art is a medium of communication and connection. It’s a powerful tool that can be used to show you things about yourself that you didn’t realize were there. A good song can cut through our fear and false selves, connecting people by the deepest joys and fears held within our hearts which, without music, we would have no way to express. A talented songwriter has the ability to combine sonic qualities with lyrical content to clearly convey their message, effectively bringing the listener to an empathic space that is the essence of the song.

A good song cuts through our fear and false selves, connecting people by the deepest joys and fears held within our hearts which, without music, we would have no way to express.

In her book “The Reason”, Flyleaf singer Lacey Strum talks about her transition to recognizing the beauty of screams in metal music. Artists use screams to convey messages of abuse, anguish, and intense anger, and when she finally read the lyrics to heavy bands like Pantera, she realized, “some lyrics, if sung honestly, must be screamed.”

So, what makes good music “good” is that it seamlessly carries its message and intent from songwriter to listener. And whether that intention is to give you the strength to get through depression, or show you that your emotions run deeper than you’d ever realized, or simply unite strangers in a club by dancing to the same rhythm, if you feel it, and you get it, then the music has done its job.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I came to terms with the fact that there’s nothing inherently bad about pop music. The genre’s wide-spread popularity is proof of the effectiveness of its songwriting. Say what you will about pop music and the industry behind it; the fact that it unifies and brings joy to millions of people all over the world is actually really awesome. When I said that I thought pop-music was garbage, I was missing the point. I wasn’t listening to the music, I was listening to fear. I was so concerned with being accepted by the people around me that I never asked myself why people like the music they do, and I was closed off to the true connection that music was willing to offer. And because I was misguided by that fear, I missed the significance of my dad’s follow-up statement to my aggressive declaration of “ear-garbage”:

“Well, their new album really spoke to me,” he had said, in a brief moment of emotional vulnerability that was all too scarce in my teenage years.

It took me years to develop a deep emotional bond with my dad, but all that time, it had been hidden inside of the music that I was too stubborn and angry to pay attention to at the time. In my quest to define good music in the years to follow, I turned to technical complexities such as vocal range, modes, time-signature changes and fast playing. But still, I was missing the point!
All along, it was really quite simple:

Good art speaks to the heart.

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