Great Songs vs. Good Songs: What's the Secret Ingredient?

Great Songs vs. Good Songs: What's the Secret Ingredient? March 26, 2012

I am a fiercely attentive student of great songs and great music. I spend many hours just absorbing the work of skilled lyricists and musicians, trying to understand the rhyme and the rhythm. As a wannabe musician and songwriter, I am acutely aware of my own limitations in these areas, yet I seem to have a knack for recognizing greatness when I see it.
Still, I realize that my definitions of “greatness” may differ from others’. So I would like to ask you, my readers, what do you think is the ingredient that separates a GREAT song from a simply GOOD song? Some time ago a similar question was going around about great music in general, but I want to tighten the focus to songs specifically.

Let me hear your thoughts. Any genre is game, though if your ideas vary from genre to genre, I will find that very interesting. Feel free to expand on the role of Christianity and Christian themes in song as well. Do you think non-Christian writers can still put truth in their work to make something great?

"/ Not too many years ago I would have glibly said, "We all have our ..."

Sam Harris Asks Questions Jordan Peterson ..."
"But, a valid ID is too much for you, eh?"

Sam Harris Asks Questions Jordan Peterson ..."
"It was a tough series about African-American spirituality. I was glad when Fr. Rohr picked ..."

Sam Harris Asks Questions Jordan Peterson ..."
"I like this:/We each need to make our own peace with the tough issues presented ..."

Sam Harris Asks Questions Jordan Peterson ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Patricia

    I think a great song is a song that can make you think and it can go both ways Christian and non-Christian. For instance the Rascal Flatts song Why has truth in it we all ask the question why when someone commits suicide and I think that is a great song, also the song I’m a little more country than that is a great song about how a guy should be with his values about marriage, and dating a girl. Also the song I’m gonna love you through it that the Isaacs and Martina Mcbride sings is a great song what comfort that there is people who will love someone through cancer and I know Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Jimmy Yeary and Ben Hayslip wrote that, also the song Beautiful Terrible Cross is a great song and I love the hook on that song it was a terrible Cross Jesus had but it was a Beautiful Sacrifice so we could have our sins forgiven. And the song Jim Brady wrote When you bow at Jesus Feet is a great song. We all should be at the Feet of Jesus.

  • Texan

    Sorry to change subject, but has anyone had trouble accessing anartistperspective blog. I can’t seem to bring it up. Thanks

  • No problem, though if you have something that’s not related to the topic at all, you can always put it in the latest open thread.
    Yes, it appears that AAP has turned into a private blog. You’ll have to request access on an individual basis now.

  • Lydia

    I have an answer to the question in the main post: The secret ingredient that distinguishes good songs from great songs is…genius.
    Oh, okay, sorry. I guess that isn’t so helpful after all. 🙂

  • Haha! Maybe you’re onto something though… care to expand? 🙂

  • marywrightt

    I think you answered your own question in your last sentence, putting truth in the song. People keep songs close to their hearts that expresses what they hold in their hearts. For instance, people who love comedy as I do can generally sing a Ray Stevens song they have not heard in many years, because ‘ jolly ‘ in a constant state in my heart. I can still sing Kitty Wells, It Wasnt God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels or any Patsy Cline and most Hank Williams songs because my dad was singing or whistling all the time. I also love Gaithers, Sinner Saved By Grace and the oldie, Amazing Grace, because they deliver a sermon in seconds. Yes, the songs are minutes, but the messages are literally seconds.
    Your opening lines in this post left me smiling because we feel the same way. I really enjoy your blogging because so often I read what I feel traveling across your key board. I think that is the element that makes a song great; when it expresses a truth, delivers a message, pleases the heart and expresses or reveals a way we can attach as being our expresses. The writer says for us what we have longed to say but could not put into words and then sets it off with music which is like the icing on the cake. The cake being how we feel, the icing being the exciting way music was added to help us remember the expression.

  • Lydia

    You’d be much better than I at giving concrete examples, but I do think of Carlyle’s dictum that genius is, first of all, the “transcendent capacity of taking trouble.” (This has gotten changed over time into a pseudo-quote that genius is the “infinite capacity for taking pains.”) And I think it was Edison who coined the phrase about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I think we can see in great works of art that they have been worked over. Even if they were originally dashed off in the heat of inspiration, the writer has to be willing to go back and devote time to polishing them. I know more about this in the realm of lyrics. One wonders sometimes when there’s just one verse or phrase in a song that is mediocre: Couldn’t the songwriter have waited to send that off until he had taken the time to come up with something better, even if it meant rewriting the stanza?
    Innate talent helps a lot, of course, as does simply being the inheritor of a great version of the language. What would Shakespeare have written had he been born today? One shudders to think.
    So it is the responsibility of those of us who are _not_ geniuses to keep around the “tools” that geniuses will be able to use. These tools would be things like a precise and euphonious language and musical knowledge, a repertoire of harmonic and melodic motifs and the like, that a genius can put together and use.
    Again, you’d do a better job at coming up with songs that exemplify either or both of the infinite capacity for taking pains and the use of great tools.

  • Very true! Though if you’re already somewhat OCD, that could get interesting. 🙂 To quote Paul Simon (because he’s teh cool), “I’m happy to spend a year and a half on a song. I’m willing to wrestle until I cry uncle or I beat it. I think that way – I got ya now! Gotcha!”
    I want to say, “Yeah! That’s how I feel too!” Does that mean I’m a great songwriter?

  • “The writer says for us what we have longed to say but could not put into words and then sets it off with music which is like the icing on the cake.”
    Yes, yes, yes! I agree. And thank you—I’m a naturally expressive person, and I love to share what I’m thinking at a given moment. I’m glad somebody enjoys reading my thoughts!

  • marywrightt


  • Aussie Craig

    Anything by The Rolling Stones is genius, as is most of Neil Young’s songs.

  • quartet-man

    “Haha! Maybe you’re onto something though… care to expand? :)” I don’t know about her, but I don’t. It doesn’t stop me from “expanding” anyway. 😉

  • quartet-man

    “I’m glad somebody enjoys reading my thoughts!”
    Well, at least it is a short read. 😉

  • “I’ll go over here and collect my thoughts.”
    “Well that shouldn’t take long…”

  • You know I’ve never actually listened to a Neil Young song, but maybe I should. I see his name get mentioned along with Simon and Dylan, so he can’t be that bad!