Creating Great Songs and Apple Pies

Apple pie with lattice upper crust
Image via Wikipedia

I recently polled some of the members of a songwriting newsgroup to see what a songwriter thinks makes a “great” song. When we listen to a song for the first time and it hits us smack in the face, what is it that gives us that “shiver down the spine”, as one member put it?

Some interesting responses that came out of this went something like this, in no particular order:

  • passionate performance
  • it’s got to do something to my head, heart or feet
  • catchy intro
  • feel
  • emotion
  • easy rhymes
  • story songs with a twist
  • good groove
  • strong hook
  • melody I can hum along with
  • I like the words to surprise me
  • good arrangement and lyric depth
  • a song has to breech my defenses with a good melody (I loved that one πŸ™‚
  • I think my taste is a product of my own circumstances (that was good too πŸ™‚
  • artistic integrity
  • overall sound, mostly melody driven
  • prosody (how perfectly the lyrics match the meter of the music)

Most people who are NOT songwriters would likely express the same things, with perhaps less use of the lingo that we songwriters often use. And still, there is this indefinable “wow” that we can’t really put our finger on, which might also be very different for each of us. How do you define it?

We are, each of us, capable of writing a song. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying that writing a song is really the easiest thing in the world. But writing a GREAT song is what we are always chasing and that mystery ingredient (or combination of ingredients) is often eluding us when it comes to our writing. Anyone of you out there who doesn’t want to write a great song? When we study the craft of songwriting, sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that all we really need are the perfect ingredients, and how hard can that be? Just look at the list above, and go from there!

But there are a couple of things missing from that list. I think they are things we overlook more often than not. First of all, even if you put all of the “right” ingredients into an apple pie, there’s always a cook who can bake a better one. Is it possible for someone who hasn’t baked an apple pie before to create the perfect one first time out? Well, anything is possible. But it’s more likely that the person who has been baking apple pies for a long time has a better chance of coming close to the perfect pie. So the first missing ingredient is “experience”. With enough experience, enough trial and error, I believe that just about anyone could write a really good song. The thing is that you also have to love doing it enough to put in the time to get good at it. Many would likely never take the time or have the patience to actually learn the craft. Not all of us want to study the craft of baking apple pies either πŸ™‚

Apple pies are also individual…nobody can make one exactly the same as mom does. And that is also true about songwriting. So along with the experience factor, there is the element of uniqueness. What is it about a newer artist that makes them stand out? These days, there are a lot of cookie cutter songs out there. I recently listened to a top 10 list of songs and five of them were hip hop or rap. I have nothing against those genres, but what I noticed about each song was that they had almost exactly the same drum sound and the same BPM (beats per minute or tempo)! Rap and hip hop have been really big in the last few years. What is going to kill the genre, if anything, is that they are all going to start sound the same after awhile, and the audience’s ear will tire of that. You can’t just throw the same song out there over and over and expect people to have the same enthusiasm for it for long.

SO…having a unique sound or perspective (or even production for that matter!) may take you a long way in this business of songwriting. And writing enough songs to develop a track record and get some experience will do the same.

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