There have been a number of disparate opinions and theories on what makes a great song. When Rolling Stone compiled their list (however flawed) of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time back in 2011, Jay-Z wrote that “A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything - it just is. When you hear a great song, you can think of where you were when you first heard it. The sounds. The smells. It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time. A great song has all the key elements — melody; emotion; a strong statement that becomes part of the lexicon.”
It’s a solid foundation, but how do you get there? How do Keith Richards and Mick Jagger put together “Tumbling Dice?” How did Bruce Springsteen come up with “New York City Serenade?” How did Tchaikovsky write “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor?” And perhaps more importantly, why do these great pieces of music resonate with us like they do?
It’s a question I’ve spent some time pondering. I’ve been writing about, consuming and stratifying music for ten years now. It was my love for music that drew me to Rolling Stone Magazine in the first place, which, in turn, helped strengthen my decision to become a writer. The first job I ever had, I landed because of an album review I had thrown together in a word document one day and sent to my college newspaper. My first official job title: “Entertainment Editor.” Since then I’ve written down, rated and inserted each album I’ve heard into my ever-expanding list of albums ranked from best to worst.
For many, music is just something to have on in the background. It serves a purpose as curtain noise and is interchangeable. But for me, it’s more than that. The music that I listen to is, in some respect, a defining part of who I am. I’ve forged friendships on the backbone of music. I’ve grown and developed my relationships with people in my family in part thanks to music. To this day, there will be times when I certain song will come on and it defines what I do in that moment. Just a few minutes ago when I was pulling into the office parking lot on my way back from lunch, I got out of my car and took a jaunty stroll around the Kaufman square just because “Take the Skinheads Bowling” came on in my playlist and it captured the moment. It’s powerful stuff, but the ingredients behind such fleeting moments can be a bit bewildering.
From the moment I was gifted my first iPod by my grandparents back on the Christmas of 2009, I’ve been contributing to and adjusting my own personal playlist of my favorite songs. It was a concept that blossomed from a mixed CD my dad gave me years prior that had first piqued my interest (and made me an Aerosmith fan for life). That playlist has grown and been curated constantly since that time to its current state where it holds 1,829 songs from across an incredible range of genres, artists and time periods. In the past I’ve found it difficult to explain why I connect with The Ink Spots’ “Just for a Thrill” in the same way I connect to Taylor Swift’s “Getaway Car” or Marilyn Mansons’ “The Fight Song.” It doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface; all of these songs encompass completely different genres, tone, and production. And yet, I love them all.
There’s only a single common thread that I’ve been able to identify running between every song in my playlist. Emotion. Each one of those 1,829 made me feel something at one point or another over the last decade plus. And if they’re still there, they still do. Whether that feeling is one of joy, excitement, anger or love, it doesn’t really matter; the fact that something someone else wrote and produced can make me feel a certain way is powerful. And, in some form, it’s the same principle I try to adhere to every week as a writer myself.
In his forward for Rolling Stone’s list, Jay-Z mentions that if he spends more than 20 minutes working on a song it’s “probably not going to work.” For others like Axl Rose, who spent 15 years working on one of the greatest albums of all time in Chinese Democracy, putting together great music is a strenuous labor. But what they and countless others have come to understand is the importance of taking emotions and distilling them into individual musical modules. So the next time you hear a song that makes you smile, or takes you back to a specific feeling that you may be years removed from, take note. That is the science of a great song.