Monday, February 26, 2007

What makes a song good? (Opening Remarks)

I've been formulating a response to the question 'What makes a song good?' and thought I'd vet some ideas here before I respond. I thought I'd start with another question: what makes a sentence good?

The key quotes for me are:

1. T. S. Eliot in The Little Gidding:

...And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together).
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning...

2. Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.

3. I once formulated a General Theorem of Poetry:

(Sound > Sight > Trope > Metaphor > Subject)
(Sound = Sight = Trope = Metaphor = Subject)


johanna said...

The idea of universality always strikes me first. If a song can speak to anybody as though it had been written about him or her...

Song differs from poetry, it is said, in its universal combination of words and music to render lyricism: the realities of musical planes outside of the words provide greater context with which to work--and that is what always loses me and frightens me when composing.

I use what chords I can, and the melody that offers the path of least resistance, but always, always wonder what I should have done or could have done if I had only known of realities lying just beyond my fingertips, just beyond my thimbleful of knowledge.

jardavster said...

One thing that fascinates me in a good song is the right balance between predictability and surprise. The predictability of the melody or chord progression or the ideas in the lyrics make me comfortable enough to engage, but the surprise when it comes, delights me and keeps me interested. There must be something basic in the human psyche that craves these two experiences. I see that same trend in my life in general, and I think it might apply to a good story or essay ... I'm not sure there's enough room within a sentence.

Matthew said...


i had completely forgotten about that, and you are right. it reminds me of listening to smart people who know a lot about music theory tell you why you feel a certain way when listening to bach or mozart or brahams or the like: because you instinctively expect a certain resolution and you are given something else instead.

this works on a barely conscious level. i also think that if a surprise is good, it stays surprising.

but i do think it can be done in sentences, too. the only example i can think of (other than one from One Hundred Years of Solitude but i gave my copy away and so can't quote it exactly) is a sentence that is actually an entire short story by the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso (which is actually quoted in Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium):

'When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.'

Another one--I don't remember the reference--is:

'"Hello," he lied."

There are probably some other better examples, but this is off the top of my head. I'll collect some more and update at some time in the future.


i know what you mean.

johanna said...

perhaps, but probably not in the same way. if you really knew what i meant, you'd never pick up an instrument again.

i try not to myself.