What Makes a Song Good?

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George clearly contemplating the writing process, with guitar in tow

Today I’d like to discuss a topic that’s been coming to my mind recently as I’ve listened to Beatles songs and other songs alike, and that is, how do we as music listeners actually decide why a song is good or bad? The most important thing to remember here is that there really is no objective measurement of “goodness” or “badness” of a song. You can pretty much conclusively determine if someone is a skilled or unskilled piano player, but it’s a bit more murky to extend that level of objective analysis to judging the quality of an entire song. Of course, there are certainly songs I think are better than others, so here are a few points of comparison between songs and some examples to support that, both from the Beatles and from other artists I admire.

One point that’s recently been floating around in my mind is the idea of “good” songs balancing vocal and instrumental melodies. That is, the melody of the instruments is as important to the beauty and structure of the song as the melody of the vocals. This is assuming we’re discussing traditionally structured “pop” songs here, not 11-minute long instrumental jams. I hate to sound like a grump, but I find that so many modern pop songs have little instrumental substance and it’s all about highlighting the singer and their impressive growl or sky-high vocal riffs. There’s something about a song that has, say, an interesting opening guitar riff, melodic vocals, and other scattered instrumental breaks that just feels more complete to me. Songs like this also communicate that the quality of the song is what is most important, not the singer’s vocal talent. There’s a distinct, noticeable difference to me between a song that exists to celebrate beautiful, thoughtful music and a song that exists for a singer to show off how high they can belt.

Both categorizations have their place in the music industry, but the Beatles were musicians first and foremost and wrote songs that nearly always fall into the former category. Take “Eleanor Rigby,” for example. The staccato strings are really the iconic part of this song, not the Beatles singing. They sound great, obviously, but this song is a fraction of its final self without George Martin’s incredible string arrangement. Luckily Beatles fans are blessed with an officially-released instrumental version of this on the Anthology 2 album, and this may be the finest example of a Beatles song in which I actually prefer the solo orchestration to the complete song. There’s just so many interesting things to notice when you listen to only the string part, so many percussive strokes and instrumental counterparts, and it conveys the message of the song’s lyrics almost as well as the singing itself. But the complete song itself is what I highlight as a perfect example of a song that values its instrumentation just as much as its vocals.

In case that all weren’t enough to celebrate, it’s just over 2 minutes long and it feels perfectly complete. The song doesn’t thematically or instrumentally need to be any longer. There are no wasted notes here; they all contribute to the moving final product. The song’s inherent structure is so well-thought-out that it carries the beauty of the song all by itself. The more I listen to “Eleanor Rigby,” honestly, the more I marvel at it. It’s quickly moving up my list of favorite Beatles songs.

Another Beatles song that demonstrates their mastery of vocal and instrumental balance is “Here Comes The Sun.” This song features such a delicate, airy acoustic guitar part that I do wish there were an official version of just the instrumental parts without any of the Beatles’ vocals. It also features a lovely string arrangement, but rather than that being the star of this song, the interplay between the strings and the guitar combine to support the beautiful vocal part. “Here Comes The Sun” is absolutely a George Harrison masterpiece that is quickly becoming my new favorite Beatles song, mostly because the guitar is soothing and relaxing. I once heard a rare version of this song that features an additional overdubbed guitar solo, but I felt that it overpowered the rest of the song and did not mesh with the existing acoustic part. “Here Comes The Sun” is simply perfect and musically balanced the way it is.

In general, I feel that with songs I really admire, I could take out the vocals entirely and listen to only the instrumental backing and I’d love the song just as much. One example of a non-Beatles song that perfectly fits this description is “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits. The separated, choppy, yet beautifully melodic guitar part always hooks me from the second that the song comes on the radio. I really do feel that this song would function almost as well as a wholly instrumental song. I say “almost” because I do also feel that part of the reason the guitar here is so enchanting is because of how it counters the vocals by providing continual instrumental breaks throughout the song. These “breaks” wouldn’t exactly be breaks if they were not broken up by an intervening vocal part, now would they. This song, unlike the previous two, does not feature any sort of orchestration. Its notable instrumental part is almost strictly guitar, but the guitar here has a life of its own and  beautifully carries the melodic weight of the song so that no additional instrumentation is necessary for the song to feel complete.

Slightly unrelated, but this song also directly connects to the Beatles by featuring a lyrical reference to “guitar George” who “knows all the chords” and “doesn’t want to make them cry or sing.” There’s a chance this isn’t intentionally referring to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but it seems more likely than not. After all that, I’m actually not 100% positive that this is a Beatles reference, but given that George Harrison is by far the most famous rock guitarist named George that I can think of, I’ll stick with this theory until proven wrong. Perhaps the guitar part throughout this song is meant as an ode to George’s carefully crafted Beatles guitar parts, which would certainly  explain why I love the song.

Much of the Beatles’ legend rests on their reinvention of the very idea of successful pop songs, and as this blog continually states, I do believe that they are still the masters of crafting songs with incredible attention to vocal and instrumental balance. However, they also epitomize the magical formula that I find takes a song from average to excellent, and that is a balance between highlighting vocals and highlighting instrumentals. It doesn’t necessarily have to be split 50/50, but I do feel that songs with a celebrated instrumental part, like the songs all mentioned above, possess more overall beauty than songs without.

I could go on and on about Beatles songs that feature a beautiful balance between vocals and instrumentals, and how this is also present in wonderful songs by other artists, but I’ll save that for another post. Until then, continue braving the long, cold, lonely winter and finding sunshine in your favorite songs.

Happy (belated) Birthday George Harrison!!!

I just found this picture, and it's so adorable!!!

I just found this picture, and it’s so adorable!!!

I know I haven’t blogged in quite a while. Don’t worry, I did not fall off the face of the earth; I was in a show last week that took up most of my time, and so unfortunately I have not had time to do a George birthday post until now. But that’s all about to change!

My love for George has grown exponentially in the last year, but I do feel like he serves a different purpose in my life now than he did a year ago. As I’ve ended sophomore year and dived headfirst into junior year, I’ve realized that there are a lot of important life decisions that have to happen this year, and of course, the nature of high school in the 21st century is that it is supposed to be stressful, competitive, challenging, and hard to get through without some guidance. I don’t have as much time to just be obsessed with the Beatles and George Harrison as I did freshman year, but that does not mean that I love them any less. In fact, during the often stressful and occasionally frustrating days, I find that I need George’s music more now than ever. His lyrics are words of wisdom to me, and I have yet to find a song of his that is not inspiring in some way.

George is more of an imaginary life coach than an imaginary husband at this point in my life, but that’s okay with me. As George frequently said, the point of life is to change, and it would be boring if everything and everyone stayed exactly the same all the time. On his birthday this year, as I proudly wore my George shirt to school and had a 5-hour dress rehearsal, I kept thinking about how much I enjoyed what I was doing and how much George loved everything he did in life. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from George, it’s that if you truly feel love and passion for something, you should stick with it.

Here are some songs that I may or may not have previously posted on this blog, but I feel that they embody George’s spirit and attitude about life. They’re not necessarily my favorite songs of his, although I love them all, but they are the ones that remind me of him the most.

I Need You

I Live For You

Stuck Inside A Cloud

Pisces Fish

Here Comes The Sun

So, on this (approximately) 71st anniversary of George’s birth, I am reminded yet again why he is and will always be my favorite Beatle. He was thoughtful, loving, insightful, patient, and a beautiful human being inside and out. I love him with all of my heart! Happy birthday Georgie!!! 🙂

I promise it will not be another 2 weeks before I blog again. Be on the lookout for a post of my favorite covers of Beatles songs in the near future! Have a great week!

And I Love Polls

So here’s another poll I came up with. I think this is a pretty interesting one, because I was curious to see what is the one Beatles song that most people can’t live without. I tried to pick a list of Beatles songs that basically everyone, even non-Beatles fans, would know.
If you would choose another song that’s not on this list, feel free to comment about it!
For me personally, out of this list of songs, I’d have a hard time choosing between Hey Jude and Here Comes The Sun. It’s pretty much a toss up between those two, although While My Guitar Gently Weeps is my #1 favorite Beatles song.
Enjoy the week!

A Beautiful Tribute to a Beautiful Man

I'm almost positive this lovely picture was being projected onto the screen...

I’m almost positive this lovely picture was being projected onto the screen…

As I posted yesterday, I attended a Fab Faux concert with my dad last night at the Beacon Theatre in NYC that paid tribute to George Harrison. And here I am now, 24 hours later, to write about it!

I had very high hopes for this concert, and despite the fact that my dad and I were in the very last row of the theatre and couldn’t see a supposedly beautiful picture of George that was projected on the back of the stage, a splendid time was had by all. From the very first note of Wah Wah to the very last note of Roll Over Beethoven, I had a rollicking good time singing along to every song, cheering for George, and occasionally tearing up at the beauty of it all. Throughout the concert, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it was to be in a room with thousands of people who loved George as much as I did. If there’s one thing I love more than talking about how much I love George, it’s hearing other people talk about how much they love George, and all of the personal stories about George told by the band members made me very happy and emotional. While George himself was not there, his spirit definitely was watching over the whole thing.

Once again, I was absolutely floored by the musical perfection that was the Fab Faux. They are truly a fantastic band and I can’t think of any way to improve upon the tribute to George that they did. Every song was perfectly and beautifully done, and in addition to playing the hits and crowd favorites like My Sweet Lord, Give Me Love, Here Comes The Sun, Something, and the like, they also threw in some wild card songs that hardcore fans like myself were thrilled to hear, like Run Of The Mill, Any Road, and Living In The Material World. I was also ecstatic to hear them play George’s very first song, Don’t Bother Me from “With The Beatles”! My favorite George solo song, What Is Life, was also played, much to my delight. It’s hard to choose a favorite moment, but I think it’s a tie between Here Comes The Sun, which almost made me cry because it sounded so beautiful, and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which absolutely brought the house down and got a standing ovation.

Here’s a couple of videos from the concert that I found on Youtube. I didn’t actually film these, but they give a good sense of the incredible musicianship that was on display last night.

This concert was the first time that I’d heard most of George’s songs played live, and it only further reminded me just how many amazing songs George wrote in his career. I never actually forgot how great his songs are, of course, but this concert proved that they sound awesome in a live setting as well!
Listening to the positively George-like guitar solos on songs like Beware of Darkness and My Sweet Lord and the mind-blowing sitar playing on Within You Without You (if there was one thing I wasn’t expecting, it was a guy playing sitar, but they even had that!) served as a reminder that George’s songs aren’t just songs; they’re beautiful, heartfelt, honest works of art.

I didn’t think it was possible for me to love George any more than I already do, but at the end of this concert, I was in love with him a million times more than I was at the beginning. At a few choice moments during the show, I just closed my eyes for a second and imagined that George was in the room, and it really felt like he was there. To me, George Harrison is simply the most beautiful human being who has ever lived, and this amazing concert in his honor was one that I will never forget.

I do hope that if you are a Beatles fan and the Fab Faux come to a theater near you that you have the opportunity to see them, because as far as Beatle tribute bands go, they are the absolute best. I hope that the Fab Faux do this type of George tribute show again, because it was fabulous!!!
Have a great week! Happy early Halloween!