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.

Cool Songs from the Early Beatle Years

The Beatles at the Cavern Club

The Beatles at the Cavern Club

While the Beatles are in general a very highly rated band, one area of their career that I feel occasionally gets passed over is their earliest years, performing at clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool and covering songs by a wide range of artists, while also introducing some of their original songs that would later become classics. To hear many of these early songs, I recommend Anthology 1 and Live at the BBC. I noticed while listening to these songs that George sings lead on many of them, which made me very happy, of course! He seemed to be almost as featured a singer as John and Paul back in those days. Here are some highlights of the two afore-mentioned albums that I think are generally overlooked:

1. Three Cool Cats

I don’t know if I can accurately describe how much I love George’s voice on this song. So I’ll just say it: I LOVE HIS VOICE ON THIS SONG!!! He was really a fantastic singer and could rock out with the best of them, including John and Paul. Also, hearing George say “cats,” “chicks,” “candy bar,” “swinging their hips,” and “potato chips” all in one song, in his adorable Liverpudlian accent, is enough to make me fall in love with him. Never mind everything else about George; just hearing his voice is enough! On a different note, hearing John say “Hey man, save one chick for me!” always makes me laugh.

2. The Sheik of Araby

Another song sung by George, with John and Paul doing some funny background vocals. I think this song dates from the 1920s. No, I don’t know what the “unghhungh” sound at 0:24 and 1:03 is supposed to be, but it’s pretty funny!

3. Cry For A Shadow

This song is notable mainly because it’s the only song known to be credited Lennon/Harrison, and it’s one of the few released instrumentals in the Beatles’ catalog. I really like this song because of the cool guitar sound throughout, and to think that George was only about 17 or 18 when this was recorded, and already playing guitar at such a high level, is amazing.

4. Like Dreamers Do

This song, contrary to the previous three, features Paul on lead vocals, and I think he’s trying to do some sort of Elvis impression. In any event, he sounds great, and I love the intro.

5. Shout

I was pleasantly surprised to find there was a Beatle version of this song, since I had heard it before sung by different artists. The energy here is wonderful, and it’s a great song that the Beatles made even greater by covering. Well done lads!

6. I’ll Be On My Way

I think this is a really great song from the early years that could have easily been a hit single. It’s got everything a great Beatles song should have: catchy melody, lovely lyrics, and well performed vocals and harmonies. All in all, a pretty good effort for a bunch of teenagers. (of course, even when they were just starting out, the Beatles were WAY more than just a bunch of teenagers!)

7. Don’t Ever Change

I couldn’t go more than a few songs without stopping to talk about George again, so here he is singing with Paul. I wish they sang lead together more often, as they sound perfectly lovely harmonizing together. This is such a sweet song, and I wish there was a video of them singing it live. Unforunately, there is no surviving footage of the Beatles from the Cavern, apparently, except for this…

8. Some Other Guy

This rendition of “Some Other Guy” is just outstanding. This could have easily had a place on “Please Please Me” and no one today would think twice about it. One of my favorite Beatle covers for sure. I love it! Plus, they look so young and cute in this video. George was probably 18 or 19 here… Only 3-4 years older than I am now! If only… 🙂