Seriously. What’s the difference between a good song and a great song? A Good performer and a Great performer? A Good musician and a Great musician?
There are a few levels to this question. The “average person” doesn’t have a clue.
I have noticed over the years that what people perceive around music is HIGHLY, and I mean HIGHLY subjective.
How Do we know a song is Good? How do we know a song is “Great?”
If a song kind of sounds like something we might have heard on the radio, most people are like, “oh THAT’S good!” But when I listen to the radio whenever I can’t avoid it, I am struck by how formulaic and vapid most new pop music is… Pop singers don’t even have to sing in tune anymore because we have digital “auto-tune.” But THAT music makes MONEY. So maybe THAT’S how we know a song is good. Blecch.
Example: I was once at a performance where I was on the bill with a songwriter who basically wrote a song quoting a pretty famous spiritual leader. The WORDS were not his, but he had arranged them in a simple song and he sang if for a group of people who valued this spiritual guru. He got a standing ovation. I was also on the bill and I didn’t get a standing ovation for one of my best songs. That’s when it occurred to me that most people don’t have a clue how to evaluate whether a song was “good” or “great.”
The just don’t have the “chops” to evaluate a song.
To me a “Great” song (totally subjective of course) is:
- A song that gets stuck in my head and just repeats over and over in my mind in a really good way.
- A Great song creates a movie in your mind.
- A great song triggers deep emotional states that seem to literally change reality or our biochemistry.
- A great song stands the test of time.
A great song can even have very simple lyrics. Prince’s Purple Rain for example. Very simple and yet whenever the damn song starts playing it CHANGES me. Tears start running down my face.
Lately Joni Mitchell’s “Refuge of the Roads” has been filling my aural cavities in the best way.
I normally don’t bother to learn much less practice other songwriters work because I’m first and foremost a songwriter. And it’s hard enough to keep up with practicing my OWN songs much less other people’s songs. But “Refuge of the Roads” just pestered me and pestered me until I HAD to learn it. And even as I write this it is “Playing in my head”…
It has a somewhat difficult melody so it’s not a singalong. It’s still a great song though because it DOES make movies in your mind. It also seems to be totally in alignment with my own “healing journey.” It FEELS good to sing as well as to listen to. In MY world it is not just a good song. It’s a GREAT song. And the other factor is time. A lot of songs from the 80’s and 90’s sound dated now. But THIS song? STILL FRESH.
Anther Example: Greensleeves. And the Christmas version, “What Child is This” written by an unknown songwriter hundreds of years ago. Still works. Still gets to people. Great Song. It certainly has stood the test of time…
But the bottom line is even a great song, if performed badly or arranged poorly or in a style that doesn’t match an audience’s preferences for style could still be a great song just not performed well or to the right audience.
Example: Electronic Dance music played for a Folkie audience or Folk music played for a Electronic Dance audience. Could still be a great song, just not appreciated in particular contexts. I wrote a my song “Rain” inspired by one of my business mentors. I knew he liked Urban Electronic Dance Music. So I had Joe Mennonna arrange it with a bit more “Edge” than we normally do. I think it sounds GREAT! But I made the mistake of thinking my mentor would appreciate it.
He didn’t “get” it. And that’s fair. But the fact that some people don’t “get” a particular kind of music doesn’t take away from the value of that music.
I like classical music. But I do not like opera. That doesn’t mean that opera is bad music. Just that I don’t “get” it.
This keeps coming up for me because I was on the radio yesterday with my friend Gary Goldberg. He’s a guy that continues to listen to new music every day. Rare for a guy over 50. And he flat out told me that my new CD “The Key To Your Cage” was just one of the best things he’s ever heard. And yet NOT A SINGLE song from that album that I submitted to the Posi Awards was even NOMINATED. I keep coming back to that because I thought the Posi award people would appreciate the messages and melodies in my songs. They didn’t.
Sometimes greatness in music doesn’t win competitions or awards. Sometimes people just don’t get it. And that doesn’t mean it’s not Great music or great songwriting. Sometimes there are other factors at work.
If a performer is animated, seems professional, sings the notes correctly etc, we usually feel like it’s a good performance. But what if that singer/performer is just “doing it right” but with no heart, or style of his/her own? MOST people would still say “that’s good”…
My sister plays the piano WAAAAAY better than me. She can read music like most people can read a menu. Boom. those little black notes just turn into music under her fingers.
But she doesn’t CREATE music. I can barely read music. But I can CREATE music. The average person can’t tell the difference. But I can. My sister’s playing is correct but it has no “soul.”
By “soul” I’m referring to that hard to define thing where a musician can dive deep into his/her music and allow it to literally play them. Or a musician can “perform” the song and smile in all the right places, contort his/her face intensely or have great eye contact with the audience… and even tho they may not be the greatest “technically” with the highest or lowest vocal range or the ability to play fast, and they can still be GREAT.
Example: David Gilmore of Pink Floyd fame. He doesn’t play the electric guitar fast. But he can literally make each note do multiple expressive things that sound amazing and touch us deeply even decades after first hearing them. Bob Dylan can’t sing very well at all and yet his songs “infect” us with lyrics that create movies and emotions in us and really catchy “hooks” that stay in our heads and hearts long after we first hear a song by him. Whether you like him or can listen to him or not, He is still universally recognized by people who have songwriting “chops” as a great songwriter.
Prolificacy: There’s a guy on Youtube who made a pledge to write and record a new song for 2000 days. OK… so he’s prolific and that takes some talent and skill just to write the sheer volume of songs… but most of them are what I would call “ditties.” Ditties are songs that I sing through out my day that I don’t bother to turn into full fledged “Songs” Like “It’s time to do the dishes” or “We going on an adventure” or whatever I’m doing or thinking about I sing… most people would not be able to tell the difference between one of my “ditties” and one of the songs I think of as examples of my best work.
Schools used to teach classes in “Music Appreciation” and “Art appreiation” I doubt they teach that stuff anymore. But a lot of music requires a little training or education in order for non-musicians to be able to understand what it’s all about.
and finally, If a musician plays the right notes and hangs out with other musicians who seem to know how to play we can automatically evaluate a musician as “good”…
but I was deeply struck by something a long time ago. While I was recording my “Breathing Underwater” CD, I had my wooden low whistle with me and I had recorded “The Silkie” where I play the low whistle before and after the main part of the song…. When I play the low whistle through my digital delay unit it sounds really, really, good. It sounds like I actually know what I’m doing on that instrument.
But for one of the other songs on that CD “The Ballad of Nathanial Bowditch” I handed Joe Mennonna (UBER genius) the low whistle and he played it… HOLY GUACAMOLE! waaaaaaaaay better. His phrasing, his tone, it was like liquid silk flowing into my ears and through my entire body.
I know that I can “pass” as a flute/tinwhistle player. But I’m barely adequate. I still love playing it. and most people find it “listenable.” But what I do on that instrument is NOT great.
What Joe does with it IS great. What I do with it is good.
So what’s the point of this post?
Mostly it’s to understand why not every body “gets” what I’m attempting to do when I write and record my songs. The deep thinking I’m doing around all of this in my own life is to let go of any need for approval from anyone else.
To really climb into my own inner knowing that what I do as a singer/songwriter may or not be “great” to someone else’s ears. But if it’s
- Authentic and emotionally clear,
- If the words make the kinds of pictures in your mind that actually make you feel better…
- and that the song get’s “hooked” in your mind and becomes a mantra or “ear worm” that travels with you through your day,
- And years later the song still rings true in a universal way…
then that song is “great.” Not just good. Great.
And finally, in your own life. Stop just going for “good.”
Start practicing going for GREAT… You won’t always get “great” and sometimes “good” is “good enough” but unless you go for great you ain’t gonna ever get great. And that’s the point. What is “great” to YOU? Go For THAT! And when you miss it? Get back up and go for it some more… and then again… and then again… and again… and again…
Sometimes it doesn’t feel very good to know you have something to offer the world and the world needs what you have but the world doesn’t know you exist or that what you do is necessary to their happiness or whatever…
And then you just keep doing your best. Take a break. Get some rest. Step back. Get some perspective. And then Get right back in to “Going for great”.
The poet Rilke in his “Letters To A Young Poet” said this:
“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts.
Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you. Nobody.
There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.
This above all-ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it… ”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
That’s it for now. My coffee is cold. It was GREAT coffee… mmmmmm still great even cold… :o)
BTW, While I had a lot of talent as a young songwriter, I was really screwed up in about a thousand ways. So I started working on my “stuff”, the “obstacles” that were stopping me from being the musician I wanted to be…
As a result, I’ve spent the last 25 years researching and applying personal healing and transformation tools to my own life as well as a close circle of students who I’ve worked and collaborated with as well as hundreds of thousands of people online. My “healing journey” has shown up in the hundreds of songs I’ve written since 1976.
In the process (and it’s all about the process) I started putting what I have learned and what I continue to learn and practice into a growing library of specific courses that walk you through step by step some of the most challenging experiences life has to offer:
- Anxiety? Crush it!
- Shyness? Forget how to do it!
- Fear? Face it, Feel it and Release it!
- Lost your mojo? GET IT BACK!
- Struggling to get over a breakup? Let it GO!