“Dude… That. Song. ROCKED!”
Have you ever said that? Have you heard a song that’s reached into your soul and built a home for itself there?
A good song can stay with you for your whole life.
It’s sometimes difficult to articulate what makes one song good and another one total trash (or even worse, forgettable!)… But if you want to elevate your songs from average to good (or from good to great), there are a handful of factors that our favorite songs share.
Here are our 5 top tips on what makes a song good!
Improve your songwriting by mastering piano.
1) An Incredible Chorus Hook/Melody
The primary hook of the song is almost always the vocal melody in your chorus. This is what most people will remember from your song, so THIS is where you should focus a majority of your efforts to create a great song.
That said, your hook doesn’t HAVE to be in your chorus (see more in our article on the difference between hook and chorus), though it frequently is! But in my opinion, many of the best hooks of all time are musical riffs that are great on their own, but get further enhanced when the vocals are overlaid in the chorus.
For instance, Rick James’ Super Freak:
The riff at the start is the hook, and a very memorable one at that.
It’s good enough on its own (it’s so good, it’s often sampled, most famously when MC Hammer used it for U Can’t Touch This. Rick James got his only Grammy because of this riff being sampled). But the riff gets even better when Rick James lays down “Super Freak! Super Freak!”
Just like that, a good song becomes great.
Many of the most popular songs of all time have great choruses but so-so verses (see most of the songs that are popular on the radio in any given decade). If you can make a chorus that can stand the test of time, the rest will often get grandfathered in.
That’s just simple math.
2) A Strong Emotional Connection
It’s hard to argue that any one of these factors could succeed without the others, but if there’s one that undoubtedly will make a song good for YOU, it’s a song that resonates emotionally.
If a song sticks with you because of the emotional connection it’s made with you, then it’s going to be hard to convince you its garbage (even if it kinda is).
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Music is meant to connect with us on a deep level, and if you are experiencing that from something that critics or your friends don’t like, it’s okay to ignore them.
Sometimes, the emotion we associate with a song isn’t really about the song. There are dozens of songs I remember being on the radio and played at school dances when I was in high school. I don’t necessarily think they’re high art, but I still smile when I hear them pop up from time to time. But as songwriters, we have little control over whether our songs will be nostalgic for our listeners.
What we CAN control is the emotion we channel into the songs. And don’t forget: there are different emotions that you can target. Not every song has to aim for the heart and soul – some can go for the booty. If you want to make a dance song or one that captures joy, please do!
Emotion does not have to equal sad, moody, or heartsick. (Feel free to check out our full list of songwriting prompts to get you started.)
I have a theory that many of the most enduring songs tend to capture a specific feeling really well. This leads to a compounding effect where they are chosen to be used in relevant TV shows, movies, and commercials, which brings them more exposure and further cements them as the quintessential song of that feeling.
- A sense of wonder: “Magic” by Pilot
- Wistful regret, especially as a parent: “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin
- Fearlessness and the embrace of chaos: “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf
- The sweet feeling of love: “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies
The list goes on and on. In my opinion, there is a lesson to be learned from commercially viable songs like these. Many of the most successful songs of all time aren’t necessarily tackling simple feelings (though plenty do – here’s looking at you, Pharrell and “Happy”). But they have a niche and fully explore it!
If you’re writing a song that’s just a few minutes long, like 99% of songs out there, there’s not enough time to tackle extremely gray areas in emotion. Instead, try this: think of an experience and think about the feeling it gives you. Then try to fully realize that emotion and bring it to life within a song.
Make sure the lyrics, instrumentation, rhythm, melody, pretty much everything is contributing to that feeling. And that will make your song emotionally cohesive and well on its way to being great!
3) Excellent Music Production Values
Enough with the sappy stuff – let’s get down to brass tacks.
Okay, not that kind of brass…
From 1952 to 1989, one of TV’s greatest insights into the music of the day was American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark. They’d often ask teenagers about the newest songs of the day and find out what they liked about them. Over time, a catchphrase of sorts developed.
Did they say they wanted a song that made them cry? Did they say they need a powerhouse vocal performance? What could it be that made songs popular with teenagers for thirty years?
The answer: “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”
Now, teenagers aren’t always the most discerning of music critics, but they sure are a big target audience! If teenagers think your song is “good,” there’s a good chance the record producers will think so too!
A great song is like a pair of pants that slip on perfectly. It sounds just the way it should and is easy to lose yourself in. What often takes a song from average to good (or from good to great) is the song’s production values.
When it comes to good songs, the Beatles were prolific. Once they decided to stop writing songs designed for tours and started spending most of their time in the studio, they started to create some of the most memorable productions of all time. For instance, “A Day in the Life” which was ranked the #24 best song of all time by Rolling Stone.
It’s a tour de force, with hypnotic effects placed on Lennon’s vocals, an expertly mixed set of drums, and a cacophonous symphony crescendoing into total madness!
These days, songs sound a little different, but require just as much attention to production values, if not more. Think of all the hip-hop, techno, house, and EDM songs that have come out in the last few decades. Sounds that were unthinkable sixty years ago have become mainstream, almost expected or cliche.
Good production values might not be enough on their own, but if you can combine it with some emotion and a memorable hook, you’ve got a recipe for success. Just look at Avicii’s Wake Me Up, with over 2 billion views.
It’s the perfect blend:
4) Memorable and Unique Lyrics
One of the most important things to consider when writing a song is the quality of the lyrics. A great song needs great lyrics. If the lyrics aren’t compelling, then it’s unlikely that anyone will remember them after listening to the song once.
There’s a delicate balance here. On the one hand, extremely simple, repetitive lyrics can stick with you for a long time. Case in point:
And the truth is many good songs have lyrics that will stick with you instantly. That’s often part of the chorus or the hook, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But there’s another category of good songs with intricate lyrics that I daresay no one could memorize in just one listen (for instance, Lil Wayne’s A Milli).
While it’s true you have options for how you approach making your lyrics memorable, the key is to make sure you actually DO it! There are dozens of songs that use virtually the same blues chord progression, but only a few are have stood the test of time, and the lyrics play a big part in that.
So, how do you write memorable lyrics? Well, emotion plays a big part in that, but we’ve already covered that in detail. In short, hitting upon something relatable will serve you well.
But beyond that, there are lots of ways to make interesting song lyrics. Have you tried all the different types of wordplay and sound? There’s a lot, but a few of the most popular are alliteration, consonance, and the all-important rhyme.
Not every song has to rhyme, of course… But rhymes are fun, memorable, and such a central part of most music that you’ll want to play around with it!
5) The Element of Surprise
Remember that time that Lady Gaga wore jeans and a white shirt? Oh… you don’t? Well, do you remember the meat dress?
If you were old enough to watch MTV at the time, I’d be shocked if you didn’t remember this one.
It’s unique, memorable, and totally Lady Gaga. When writing music, we should consider if there’s something we can do to make our songs unique, memorable, and totally us. And one of the best ways to do this is through something the audience wouldn’t normally expect.
One of my favorite YouTube channels is from music producer Rick Beato. He often goes through popular classic songs and tries to give his reasoning on what makes a song great. One episode that stood out to me was the one on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Beato explains all the little touches that make the song special.
He says that Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl puts a little pause before the kickdrum in the famous recurring motif that you hear at the start of the song. The drum part wasn’t quantized – no computers interfered to put Grohl’s playing back on the beat. And every time this happens, it makes the impact more powerful.
This one little touch improves the song so much, it’s almost like Grohl is beating the song into your brain with his drumsticks so it stays there forever!
Slight syncopation is a little more subtle than a meat dress, but the effect can be the same. Whether you go big or small, aim to do something – ANYTHING – different than what everyone else is doing in their music.
It could be your:
- Song structure: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
- Music: “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel
- Lyrics: “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel
- Rhyme: “Lose Yourself” by Eminem
- Production: “The Final Countdown” by Europe
- Vocal performance: “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- Music video: “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus
- Promotion/marketing: “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” by Wu-Tang Clan
What makes a song good differs for everyone. But people remembering your song is half the battle, and surprise is the best weapon in your arsenal for writing memorable songs!
How Do You Write Great Songs?
Once you feel like you’re writing pretty good songs, you might wonder how you can go from good to great.
But in many ways, “great” is even more subjective than “good.”
Greatness is different for everyone, depending on the metrics they’re using. The song that was playing when you met your spouse might be a great song to you, but an instant skip for your neighbor. The greatest heavy metal songs of all time might sound like garbled noise to your grandmother, while those big band hits from the 40s might be a snoozer for a zoomer.
My best advice for writing a great song is just to write good songs – as many as you can come up with. Lots of songs that we think are good turn out to be great because other people think so, not us. Dave Grohl says that no one in Nirvana expected Smells Like Teen Spirit’s success. “Nobody really paid too much attention to ‘Teen Spirit’ while we were recording it. We just thought it was another cool song for the record.”
If you write enough songs that you and your target audience think are good, and you push yourself to intensify the five factors above (including clearer emotional connections, better production values, and crisper lyrics), then you put the odds on your side of eventually writing a truly great song!
What Makes a Good Song Wrap-up
As you’ve probably noticed, writing good songs isn’t easy. To paraphrase a bit from George Carlin, “Half of all songs are below average.”
Even your favorite musician has probably written some truly terrible songs (even if they were never released).
So, next time you listen to your favorite songs, think about these five factors for writing good music:
- Did that hit single on the radio have a memorable chorus?
- Did it resonate emotionally with me?
- Did the production values really pop?
- Are the lyrics going to stick with me?
- Did it surprise me in a way few other songs have?
Once you really start to think about it, you’ll see how important these elements are in every song you hear. And then, you can do it for yourself!
If you want to get better at writing memorable music that resonates, I recommend that you get familiar with an instrument like piano. The more you know about how great songs are constructed sonically, the easier it will be for you to create a masterpiece yourself. Check out Piano for All below to get started!
Improve your songwriting by mastering piano.