What Makes a Good Song? (It’s Not Originality)
I recently had a writing session with a good friend of mine. As I threw out ideas, he pushed back at a few of them. This is normal (and healthy) in a writing session, but his reasoning was interesting to me: he thought it was too predictable.
Specifically, I don't think he liked the chords I was suggesting for the melody we were working with. “It sounds too obvious that it would go to the four chord there,” he said.
“Well yeah that's where the melody is leading,” I said, “trying to force a different chord there would just make it sound awkward and pull the listener out of the flow.”
“I guess I just want to be more original than that” he said. Which I totally understand and can sympathize with.
Now, I don't bring this up as a way to stroke my ego and use my platform to make the case that I was right and he was wrong – he might have been right after all. But it got me thinking, a lot of musicians are probably too worried about being original and it hinders songwriting/creative output.
Originality is Overrated
When I was in college, I took a class on advertising. We had to read a book by one of the GOATs of adverting, David Ogilvy. I don't remember much from the class aside from one main he made in the book Ogilvy on Advertising. He basically said (and I'm paraphrasing), “Oh you think creativity means originality? I think originality is one of most dangerous words in advertising – it causes people to peruse things that don't matter. To me, if it doesn't sell, it isn't creative.”
Heck yeah, the point of advertising is to SELL, not be original! If it doesn't sell, then it doesn't matter! The same thing applies to music: the point is to get the listener to feel something! To get the song stuck in their head, to get them want to play it over and over again!
Steal Like an Artist
The over-obsession of originality in creative fields is echoed in a book I think all creatives should read, Steal Like an Artist. The main points of the book are:
- There is nothing new under the sun
- You are the sum of your influences
- True creativity comes from acknowledging and embracing those two previous points
- You will be unique because nobody else has the same influences and life experiences as you
That's not to say copy and rip off (because cheap imitations never connect with people), but be yourself while being true to who your roots/influences.
The ONLY thing that matters is that the listener gets transported into another world when listening. Does it hold the listener in a flow state? Does it make you forget about the world for a brief moment? Does it make you want to dance and sing? Do you get goosebumps? Etc.
Even Taylor Swift, one of the greatest songwriters of our generation, uses typical “pop” chord progressions over and over. She doesn't care. She's just trying to write a great song with a great melody and on a relatable topic.
But are the songs cliché? If you're a Taylor hater, you might say so, but I don't think so. Taylor songs are a masterclass in embracing the pop tradition without slipping into the pitfalls of being generic/derivative dribble that causes people to NOT connect with a song. The fact is that Taylor's songs WORK – they get stuck in your head and rack up millions of streams for good reason!
Sure you can lampoon pop chord progressions all you want– but the fact is, a good song is a good song.