What makes a song good: connections.

By: Sam Kayuha, In The Record Store staff writer.

Few things remain that science can’t explain. It has solved the genetics behind male pattern baldness, susceptibility for skin cancer, and more. Another discovery, far from its most important, is what makes a good song good.

Vince, Grant, and Mel dove into what makes a good song good on an episode last year. It is a topic on which hours or books could be spent; but finding something like an explanation was the goal of both that podcast and this article.

Musician Chilly Gonzalez breaks down catchy songs in his pop music masterclass He uses Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” in one episode, attributing the catchy lure to its repetitive melody, and the playground technique, which he describes as “no song at all but just a chant that you could yell at someone in the street.” By repeating the chorus three times, with the emphasis changing once then returning to the original, Swift uses what Gonzalez calls “rhythmic displacement.”

“It gives you this feeling that the song is kind of speeding up because the repetition comes sooner than you expect,” he says. It’s a technical explanation for why you and everyone you know had the song stuck in the head at one point.

Knowing these techniques is how songwriters make a living — but what about songs that will never get played on the radio, maybe songs that most people never hear of — how are they considered good?

What these analyses cannot explain is the connection a song makes with the listener.

The songs that I consider good stretch from one fringe of genre to another, rap to rock to jazz and whatever falls in between. Whatever connection they have depends on the listener.

On Saturday, when the mood was bright and the sun was out and the temperature was pleasantly bellied by greenhouse gasses, the only songs I wanted to hear were bright and sunny; Sublime’s “Santeria,” Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.” But by the late afternoon I was at my desk, on the clock, under fluorescent lights instead of the sun. At that moment the only songs that would have seemed good to me were ones that shared my discomfort at being employed — “Bang the Drum All Day,”  “Take This Job and Shove it” — while Gonzalez might be able to explain what makes a good pop song, he hardly accounted for mood.

Some songs also only seem good in moments of despair — while they might not be enjoyable, there is something about the emotional connection that makes the sentiment cut deeper. Happy songs are rarely the antidote to depression — usually music can improve mood, but rarely when it expresses contrasting emotions. Sad music is affecting because it expresses the emotion in a way that everyone can connect with, even if they can’t express it themselves.

Some memories are distinctly connected with music. Oftentimes the song is what makes the memory so ingrained. I can picture a moment from five years ago, me running on High Street, it’s snowing, Kendrick Lamar’s “B**** Don’t Kill My Vibe” plays in my headphones. For the hundreds of runs I have gone in my life, this memory stands out for little reason besides the music I associate with it. I can no longer hear that song without picturing the corner of HIgh and Henderson, the cars passing by, my haggard breathing.

If your musical tastes aren’t limited by genre, there is no connection between good songs, except that they all meant something to you at sometime.

The Beatles were the first band I loved, starting in my childhood —”Hey Bulldog” was my first favorite song, and hearing it now conjures up clear memories of a certain time in my life. If you can remember the first song you loved, then my guess is that you still consider it good, even if a lot of people don’t.

Music from the formative years, connections made when we’re all just figuring out how to be people, stick with us. It’s the reason classic rock remains so popular — there is not a lack of good music anymore, but a lack of music that people of older generations can find some connection with.

Goodness is in the eye of the beholder. And most of the time, the beholder has a reason why, even if they don’t know it.


OHIO JUKEBOX: The music you hear on the podcast can be heard separately in our Ohio Jukebox. It's a collection of all the music from the show. A growing list of the good songs from local Ohio artists.