What makes a song great?
Music is the language of emotion.
A good song is one that communicates non-verbally. Lyrics are fine, but the should be complementary, not central. Although, juxtaposing lyrics and sound that elicit conflicting emotions is also quite powerful. Either way, the key is emotional communication. Good music should be able to make you cry, laugh, exult, or feel any other possible emotion.
Good, meaningful lyrics...not lyrics that are contantly repeated and seem to have no meaning
Good instrumental work/melody
Makes people feel or think, as franz said
Perhaps you can find the answer by asking what makes a song bad.
I personally love skill songs, not emotional songs. Songs that show technical prowess. With dark or cryptic lyrics. So basically Death/Black/Heavy/Progressive-Metal or Classical.
Edit: Also some songs, especially ones with freakin' awesome double bass just get be excited and get the adrenaline rushing, it's hard to explain but when it happens I can't help tensing my muscles lol.
The skill of the person performing it.
a big variety of instrument combined togather. they should avoid repeating themselves, keep changing the tunes. also i like it fast, yet not too fast, i hate it when rock bands they just try to look all fast, regardless of the fact that they play like ****(to be clear, i love rock, i just dislike it when they start pulling the strings like madmans) .
I think we each have to answer than for ourselves. Your list of "great" songs may differ greatly from mine, and I doubt if we could figure out why you like some songs that I don't care for and vice-versa.
For background: I have always been fascinated by music. When I was very young (about 4 or so), my great uncle moved into a small apartment and he gave his console record player and his LPs to my mother. Even at that age, I gravitated to some music and was cool to some. I used to play certain albums over and over, especially the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, and we had a 45 by that hot young country guy - Johnny Cash. I literally wore out "Don't take your guns to town." I'm sure that on rainy days when I was playing records instead of playing outside, I was driving my mother to distraction, but she never discouraged me.
There were older guys who used to hang out on the porch of the house across the street on summer evenings, playing guitars and drinking a few beers. I used to go over there every chance I got, to listen to them and watch them play. They weren't the most skilled musicians, but good enough that I liked listening to them, and unlike recordings, their songs turned out a least a little different every time, and I liked that, too. If you asked me why I preferred listening to the Ink Spots instead of Perry Como or Patty Page when I was a kid, I couldn't tell you. A friend asked me about a year ago why I play blues songs, and why I have so many blues CDs and records, and all I could come up with was "I like the blues". You'd think that after performing rock and blues in bands off and on since the '60's, that I would have a better answer. I don't.
What makes great, great?
Some of my favorites songs are a cappella. The voice alone can be an incredible instrument.
A cappella songs can be great, as can stripped-down arrangements with just one or two instruments, letting the vocal dominate. KD Lang's voice in "The rights of the Children" from the CD "Absolute Torch and Twang" gives me goosebumps every time. There's a tiny clip here:
The answer depends on the purpose of the question. My sense is that you are curious as to what all the songs you consider "great" might have in common that causes you to have that reaction.
Were you to start analyzing them next to each other you'd find that each was composed of many different noticable strong elements that seem to contribute to their successfulness. However, you'd also find that these strong points aren't the same from one song to the next.
Consider an analolgy to painting:
If we say Rembrandt was successful because he explored and heightened the contrast between light and shade, then we might erroneously conclude that is an essential factor in a good painting. By that standard Gaugin would become a failure. Since he wasn't a failure, quite the opposite, we have to look at things at a different level to explain how both these painters end up being great while doing such vastly different things.
Cutting to the chase: I think a great song is one that successfully communicates what it's own rules and dynamics are, then proceeds to explore those rules and dynamics, both bringing them to perfection and also toying with breaking them right in front of your ears.
Another consideration - I have a guitar student that I'm passing along some tips to, and one of the things that I'm trying to get him to do instinctively is listen for the "space" in his favorite songs and try to work with that space. Some otherwise talented guitarists seem to want to fill every available space with chords, when one or two well-chosen notes would suffice, and then play every lead like it has to be crammed with fast runs and catchy licks. I like my music spare - with the bass guitar playing the root note (or a close relative) on the beat, tasteful drumming, and just enough instrumentation to define the space in a song without filling it. When I learn a new song, I usually start out with barre chords, and when I have gotten it down pretty well, I start paring away at it trying to convey the same concepts with fewer notes, and accenting those notes that remain with vibrato, pick attack and tightly-timed muting (because when and how a note ends can be even more important than when it begins - the space concept, again)
My favourite songs are those that make you go, "wow how did he/she do that" Songs that push the bounds of what actually constitutes the proper use of an instrument. For example, when electronic musicians use drum machine loops as melody and melody as bass and drums. Same goes for guitar, when Hendrix for example, would up the gain and feedback, and make the wowest rifts. Squarepusher is very good at this, by making a drum beat sound like a melody. Also the pioneers of the electro soul music in the late 80's by some geniuses out of Detroit.
I've noticed, at least for me, the songs that appeal to me usually have 3 distinct hooks. Hard to explain it thoroughly, but I refer to it as my rule of 3.
The melody has to be catchy (hook 1), the chorus has to be catchy (hook 2), and it needs that something extra. Like a change in tempo thrown in, a different chorus, a guitar solo or some rocking beats. I don't know, something. A third hook.
What makes a song great is I can listen to it no matter what mood I'm in currently.
Don't Take Your Guns to Town, a later rendition of the Johnny Cash song that I wore out when I was a kid (post #9).
A couple things:
the score (the progression of the whole song, how it moves, the chord charts)
the flourishes (leads and melodies in the right place, that emphasize the movements of the progression)
talent (the musician's technique and feeling)
if you can relate to the lyrical content, you might disregard the quality of the music.
If the artists are outspoken, vibrant images, you may ignore the quality of the music. Good stage performance can upstage the quality of the music sometimes.
This type of song hooks me. The story, the presentation, the whole picture, and this gal was singing on one of the TV "I wanna be a rocker" contests.
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