What Is It That Makes Music Good?

My friend, Malcolm McMillan, who is also a worship pastor at our church, sent me this message on Facebook.

Hey everyone, I am giving a guest lecture to a Bible College class in February about art and the nature of beauty, and I could use your help. My talk is supposed to focus on music specifically and the standards by which we judge and enjoy it. Since I have fewer answers on this than I thought I did several years ago (ha ha), I thought I’d go through my Facebook friends list and ask anyone I thought might be remotely interested in this topic! If you are so inclined to honor me with your time, I would love to hear your somewhat succinct viewpoint on this question: What is it that makes music “good” or “bad”? (not in the moral sense as much as the quality sense). In other words, when you say, “That’s a good song!”, what are you saying beyond, “That song appeals to my taste.”?

As soon as I read the question I knew I was in for a few hours of intense thinking, significant conversations, study, and discontent. I knew I could never be content with my own answers to this question and probably would not be satisfied with anyone’s answer. I also knew that I had to respond. So, if you are a regular reader of this blog you will find this article to be about six times longer than my usual posts and I recommend that you make sure you have enough time to read it all before embarking on this journey with me. Go put on the kettle and make a pot of tea before you settle in for a winter read.

The first thing I concluded was that the best I could hope to say was, “For me, this is a great song and here is why.” Yet, this in itself is very unsatisfying. I would like to think that there is some kind of ideal someplace that represents “good” music. I would like to think that there is a gold standard that backs up all of the imperfect echoes of music heard on earth.  Chris Rice wants to write “the best song ever” and seems to share my hope that there could be some sort of Platonic Forms of music (non-material but substantial abstracts of all things on earth).

The Best Song Ever 

(Written by Chris Rice and performed on the album Amusing

Take a good look at yourself
You’re probably singing along
Lying alone in your room
Or cruisin’ down an empty road
Or maybe you’re on your feet
In a crowd of strangers and friends
The spotlight’s on someone else
But you feel like you’re part of the show
What’s the magic in the music?
And why does it bring us together like this?
We all have a longing inside
And it keeps us singing song after song after song… 

We’re all waiting for the best song ever
It’s somewhere out there, and everyone can feel it
We keep waiting for the best song ever
And when it arrives the whole world’s gonna hear it
Yeah, the best song ever
One day we’ll all be singing it together 

Where will the song come from?
Who’s gonna find the right words?
Come up with a melody
That rings in every human soul
Well dig out your instruments
Make sure they’re all in tune
‘Cause nobody knows how long
But we still got some singing to do
‘Cause there’s magic in the music
Just look how it brings us together like this
We all have a longing inside
And it keeps us singin’ song after song after song 

We’re all waiting for the best song ever
It’s somewhere out there, and everyone can feel it
We keep waiting for the best song ever
And when it arrives the whole world is gonna hear it
Yeah, the best song ever
One day we’ll all be singing it together
The best song ever!

Of course, in a world that no longer thinks in terms of absolutes, Plato’s Forms get little respect. The best that Chris Rice or you or I might hope for is to write “the most popular song” ever. Is that what we mean when we say that a song is really good? Certainly, we would expect good music to grab the attention of many people but I am sure we can all point to songs that are popular that do not seem very good. We might have to look at what contributed to their popularity.

One of the things that contributes to popularity is what Malcolm McMillan calls “context.” He asserts that the context in which a song comes to us determines our reaction to that song and our sense of whether or not we like it and how beautiful it sounds to us. He is saying that our emotional state as we listen to a song affects our perception of that song. The best example of this is when one is emotionally caught up in the story of a movie or stage-play and we hear a song at that moment that has been chosen to fit the mood. It may be the first time we have heard that song or the hundredth time; but after hearing the song in that context it will likely pull us toward the emotions of the drama the next time we hear it. The song does not have to have a prominent place in the drama to have this effect. For me, the song, “I Will Not Go Quietly” by Steven Curtis Chapman, has a powerful emotional sway even though it is only heard in the movie, The Apostle, for about two seconds. Yet, because it is caught up in the milieu of an emotionally charged movie, and is included on the sound track album for the movie, it affects me more than it otherwise might.

Malcolm also attributes “context” when he says that a piece of art created by his child will move him more than it might otherwise because of the relationship he has with his child. Certainly, relationship with the artist and relationship to the art is a contributing factor.

Beyond all I have already said on this topic are several other factors I am going to try to list. I will seek to present them in a descending order of their effect (once again – I must specify that this is how it works for me).

1. It most often starts with lyrics for me. I love clever rhymes and partial rhymes that convey the message as well as, or better than, straight prose. “Faith Enough” by Jars of Clay has many clever turns of phrase that catch me off-guard. I was not expecting them to say, “the ice is thin enough for walking” and relate it to a faith that is enough to rely upon. The fact that they wrap it all up in a clever rhyme scheme adds to the power of this song. It encourages me to think that this might hold some sway for many other people as well.

2. Another important factor for me is, “Can I sing the song?” If the song is well-suited to my voice, and particularly if it is a song that is challenging to sing, I am more apt to like the song. If it is a song that few in the world would tackle and yet I can sing it, that is almost a guarantee that it will be in my favourites list.

3. Along with the “can I sing it” factor is the “have I ever sung it in public?” factor. I have been blessed to sing songs in many different venues over the span of my life (some originals and many covers). When I hear one of those songs it takes me back to the thrill of performing and the joy of seeing others enjoy a song as it is performed live.

4. Then there is the voice of the singer. Compare these two versions of a classic song, the Wichita Lineman. Jimmie Webb wrote the song and performs it here. Glen Campbell made it a huge hit and sings it here. Even if we ignore the differences in the band and the arrangements, the voices have significantly different qualities.

5. Arrangements and stylistic differences affect our perception of songs. Darrel Scott wrote a song called “Never Leave Harlan Alive.” He, Kathy Mattea, and Brad Paisley have all recorded it and sold the recordings. All three are great performers and singers but when I poll my friends about which version is best I find that different people choose different recordings for a variety of reasons. (By the way, if you find a recording of Keith Shields singing it a cappella in a Vancouver coffee-house, that is definitely not the best recording of the song.)

6. The melody of the song is important. Everyone continues to look for beautiful melodies that no one else has found. But the match of lyrics to melody is also important. Paul McCartney has spoken of the writing of “Yesterday” in multiple places (see the various biographies or this interview).

I woke up one morning with the song in my head. So, I went round for weeks – first of all to John, and then to George, Ringo, George Martin, various people – and said, ‘What’s this tune, man? I can’t get it out of my head, what is it?’ And no one could figure it out, so for a couple of weeks I thought, ‘Well, I must have written it then’, cos all those people had pretty good knowledge of what songs were either around or had been. So, I had the tune, and then I blocked it out with, [sings verse melody] “Scrambled eggs / Oh my baby, how I love your legs”, which was the first lyric, and I just used to goof with that for a while.

I think we are all happy that Sir Paul eventually went to a different place with the lyrics.

7. Harmonies likely should be higher on this list. I love great two-part (Everly Brothers) or four-part (Eagles) harmony. The meshing of two or more notes to create a chord is certainly one of the great mysteries of creation that points to an orderly God.

8. Another form of “context” is when we can relate to a song or we know someone else who can relate to that song. A young man recently called in to a radio station in Calgary and told the DJs that his heart had been broken by a woman that he had loved for ten years. He wanted to request “Tonight I Wanna Cry” by Keith Urban. The words of the song fit the way he felt and hearing it was cathartic in his grieving process. One can readily see how the song becomes a “good” song or even a great song to this man. He may not even care if it is high quality music because it speaks to his emotions.

9. That leads me to another important factor for me: “Does the song affect my emotions?” A well-arranged string section can cause my heart to ache; a single note from Alison Krauss’ voice in “Ghost In This House” can bring tears to my eyes (some of you know the note I am talking about), or a well-timed guitar solo in “Wichita Lineman” can bring great joy and goose-bumps to me. This is the mystery of music. It is hard to pin-point such effects and even harder to measure them; yet, I cannot deny that they are there. This is the existential and experiential element in this discussion. There is a song by the Eagles on the Long Road Out of Eden project that I have often called a masterpiece; but when people ask me why I believe “Waiting In the Weeds” to be a masterpiece, I am hard pressed to come up with a complete answer.

10. The skill of the musicians is part of what goes into this. The tunings they choose, the accuracy of tuning, and the dynamic sound levels are further factors. All of this and more is what we would refer to as the arrangement and we have already seen that this makes a huge difference.

11. A factor that is easily ignored is the degree to which we listen to a certain style of music. If we live in a culture that plays eastern music as opposed to western music we will be accustomed to different scales, rhythms, and sounds than those who listen exclusively to western music. Musical styles affect our “ear for music.” If I steep myself in rock rather than folk music I will likely develop a greater love for rock than folk. For a season, I was a singer in a Southern Gospel quartet and I listened to many other Southern Gospel groups and learned to recognize “good” Southern Gospel; I did musical theatre for a brief time and gained an appreciation for songs that fit the moment in a drama; then I was lead singer in a country band and we covered the “popular” country songs of a five to ten year period of country music; next, I sang with a six piece folk-rock band, which later became a folk duo (you can attribute the attrition to creative differences). At each stage, my musical tastes were influenced by the quantity of music I was listening to in each of those genres.

12. In 1975 I was fifteen years old and I was experiencing all of the teenage angst of love and sexual feelings. The songs that I listened to on AM top forty radio in that year are still some of the songs that I remember most and are ones which move me strongly. In fact, most of us have been greatly affected by the songs of our youth (approximately 11 years old until the time we get married or until we are about 25). There is something about the emotions of this time that almost hard-wire some favourite songs into our psyche.

13. Songs I have written hold a special place in my heart. When I write songs, I feel like a kid trying to create a crayon version of a Rembrandt painting and I know that they will never be like the masterpieces of professional musicians; but these hobby songs still have an attraction for me. I perk up when I hear them played on my iPod. When I have performed them, in Open Mic situations, coffee-houses, and pubs in Vancouver, I have watched for responses from the audience. A subtle nod that says, “Ah yes, I get that lyric” or “I can relate to that lyric” is more powerful than the whole audience clapping and singing along to an original song.

14. Lastly, popularity does affect my appreciation of a song. If you want to be a successful cover band you must pay attention to songs that hit top ten in popular radio charts;  but the key is also finding that song that was very popular that people have forgotten. When you play that one, in a skillful manner, you pull up all the emotions they felt when they first heard it even though they may have forgotten it long ago. Tricia Yearwood said this in a much more poetic way when she sang the song “The Song Remembers When.”

I was standing at the counter
I was waiting for the change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match
Had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
After taking every detour
Getting lost and losing track
So that even if I wanted
I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory
Of the way things might have been
After I’d forgotten all about us
The song remembers when

Is this an example of popularity, context, or emotional angst? I suspect it stands in for all of those and more.
Gordon Lightfoot, that icon of Canadian folk music, has this to say to those who would like to write “good” music.

Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work. You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced that has some kind of poetic drift to it, and put it into lyric. . . . It’s good when people can read their own story into the song you’ve written. I always hope my songs have a positive effect. You don’t want to negatively affect people’s emotional states.”1

On the other hand, Elton John and Bernie Taupin say, “sad songs they say so much.” Happy listening and please help Malcolm and me better understand “good” music by commenting here.

1. Jennings, Nicholas. “Gordon Lightfoot On
Songwriting.” W + M: Words and Music, Winter 2013: 24-26.

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