My brother and I were talking recently about my song reviews for The Appetizer Radio Show. He’s an English professor and a musician. He opined that it must be hard to critique songs because they’re entirely subjective. I confirmed his suspicion.
So – what is a song?
I’ve thought a lot about that question. The easy answer is “a song is words accompanied by music.” But the best songs – great songs – move people on more than one level, and I think that is the crux.
So then – what moves people? Four things – body, mind, emotion, and spirit. Our bodies have built-in instinctual responses (fight or flight). Our minds process input and reach academic conclusions (the earth is round). Our emotions are trickier, but they speak to our sense of what is intuitively right or wrong (I just knew it was the right decision). And our spirits guide our ultimate core values (all you need is love).
A good song connects effectively with one or more of these four avenues of perception. A great song will connect with all four. But of course that will vary from person to person even with the same song. So then we’re back to the issue of subjectivity. A song is only as good or great as any given person perceives it to be.
With that in mind, let me define what is a great song to me. A great song will be characterized by the following four traits.
A great song is memorable. But don’t confuse memorable with simplistic (see contemporary Christian music). Some of the most memorable songs are quite sophisticated, even complicated, in their musical structure.
A great song stirs emotion, negative or positive. My personal criteria is seeing a visible emotional response in the face or body language of the listener. People will not respond to a great song with a poker face or a frozen posture.
A great song informs. It provides fresh insight or a new way of seeing something old.
A great song inspires. It will confirm, expand, and/or sometimes completely change our core values.
When I write a song, I am reaching for all four outcomes. But it’s not a mechanical or formulaic effort on my part. To the contrary – my songwriting is mostly unencumbered and passive. I put myself in a receptive mode and wait. If something comes to me, I write. If it doesn’t, I don’t. Consequently (and for many other reasons), I have never made a functional career of songwriting. But I have written hundreds of songs over the last 51 years. And a few of them I have considered to be worth keeping and sharing.
So then – the next time you listen to a song, try this. Listen with your body, mind, emotions, and spirit. You just might hear music in a wonderful new way you never experienced before. But be warned – once you hear it that way, there will be no going back to lazy listening!