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I have good news and I have bad news, and it’s both the same news. 

It’s very hard for someone to tell you if your song is bad or good. 

This is because whether a song is bad or good is so much a subjective opinion depending on who you ask. 

  • Some people love hearing 12 minute progressive rock songs about dragons in space, others think those are not good songs. 
  • Some people love hearing songs about how badass they are for being toxic, others think those aren’t good. So what’s good or bad most of the time is based on opinion. 

It is better to evaluate your execution. How the song is written.

As a general rule, what makes good songwriting is presenting your ideas in ways that effectively communicate your song to the listener. This means having a well organized arrangement, a song structure that makes sense, peaks and valleys, a hook or motif, instruments working together, communicating the idea/emotion/concept of your song effectively and having something unique to you in it. 

Having an Organized Arrangement

Arrangement is a huge topic but in a nutshell it refers to making sure that your instruments are not competing with each other for the listeners attention. 

For example, if you have a guitar solo, you don’t want to have a super complicated melody running in the background because then it just sounds like a jumbled mess. 

The exception to this being if you are purposely doing Counterpoint (having two melodies working together interdependently). 

Notice how I said “working together”. This means the melodies are not stepping on each other and competing for the spotlight.

It’s more like two melodies having a conversation rather than two monologues running at the same time. You can see how that would make it hard for a listener to enjoy either one. 

An organized arrangement can also mean how you use the range of frequencies available. For an exaggerated example, let’s say you have a song and the vocals are using the same notes as the bass, but then also the keyboard is doing notes in the octave range of a bass, and the guitar is tuned down to the octave range of a bass. 

You can see how this is going to make it very hard to appreciate any of them.

A much better arrangement would be to let the bass and kick drum handle the low end and notes, the guitars handle the mid range notes and the keyboard and vocals can handle the mid to high range notes.

Sometimes songwriters might muddy things up by mistake and without realizing it. Especially if you are making a song on one instrument without taking into account what the other instruments are doing. 

You might have a keyboard pad with a lot of low end and it might be muddying up the bassline. 

Or you might think that your song doesn’t have enough low end so you crank the bass lows instead of realizing the low end in a mix isn’t just the bass, it’s also the low end from the kick drum. 

Hope this is starting to make sense. Good songwriting takes arrangement details into account even though some of them are production related. There is often some overlap.

I did an article on arranging a rock song which you might want to check out for more on this. How to Arrange a Rock Song for a Full Band.

The Song Structure Makes Sense

A good way to think about song structure is to think of it like the structure of a story. Most stories are linear with a beginning, middle and end. They have hooks that are like Choruses in a song. 

Sometimes you start the song with a hook first which is kind of like when movies make the first scene a short super high action scene and then later they explain how they got there. 

So good songwriting makes sure the structure of the song makes sense and tells the story in a sequence that is digestible and understandable. 

This also means every section of a song has a job to do. Verses are where you expand on your concept, Choruses are the main idea, Bridges are the spice where you throw in something different. 

Make sure they are doing their job. 

Here’s some articles that talk about the roles of each section of a song Song Structure Templates To Write Songs Fast and 7 Creative Ways to Structure Your Songs Better.

Song Has Peaks and Valleys

Generally speaking, a well executed song will have peaks and valleys (unless you are writing something ambient or meditative for example).

This means rises and falls in tension and release. This can be made up of changes in tempo, pitch, the amount of instruments being used, how much intensity they are playing with, etc.

This also has to make sense because if, for example, you started off your song at the highest tension possible then you have nowhere to go but down. 

It’s supposed to be kind of like a romantic date. You don’t lead with the climax lol. It’s a dance of peaks and valleys that eventually get there. 

There is a Hook, Motif, or Topline

Good songwriting usually has some sort of hook, motif, topline that makes each song unique. 

This doesn’t mean that your hook always needs to be your Chorus.

I’ve heard songs with hooks that were one riff in the Bridge. 

Lateralus by Tool is an example. The intro hook of the song is developed and used as the Bridge. 

A hook can be made from other elements of the song too. There are songs where the hook is a really catchy drum beat or bassline like in Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, or a melody, or a chord progression, etc and can be under the whole song or just in part of it. 

The Instruments Work Together

For the most part, your instruments should sound like they are working together, like they are listening to each other and complimenting each other. 

There is no faster way to tell an amateur musician than hearing them play off in their world completely disconnected and without listening to what the rest of the instruments are doing.

So when you are writing songs I think it is important to listen to each of the instruments in your song and imagine you are playing them. 

Who’s holding the spotlight in each part of the song? Does my instrument support them or is it trying to steal attention away? Am I playing something that is grooving with the rest of the band? 

All important questions to make sure your instruments are working together as a team. 

Communicates The Emotion Effectively

Everything I have said so far is guided by the goal of communicating the idea/emotion/concept of the song effectively. 

And with this point I also want to stress MOOD and VIBE. 

Does your song vibe well? Does your song set the mood and guide you through it?

If you are making a super deep slow song and halfway through you decide to goof off and start playing a cheesy carnival jingle as a joke it might really ruin the emotional depth of the song. 

You also don’t want to write one song that covers 5 different genres in it because it won’t mix well. It’s forcing too many different things into one song.

I’m all for experimentation but if you try to make one song be a sad song that turns into an angry song that turns into a party song that turns into a dance song that turns into a sexy song this is most likely going to be too all-over-the-place. 

Although I would love to be proved wrong if you have this banger and want to send it over to me lol. 

Mood and Vibe are really important and should be kept in mind in all your songs. 

Has Something Specific to You in it

I wanted to end with this last point because when I think back to all the songs I like that I think sound really unique it is because they often had something unique to the artist that wrote them. 

Maybe they have a chord change they favor, maybe they write about a particular subject, maybe they borrow ideas from cultural genres they identify with. It can be a number of things but I think for a song to sound unique it really helps to put something of yourself in it. 

Everyone has different preferences, experiences and circumstances so I think this is a reliable strategy to make your song different from everyone else. 

This doesn’t just mean lyric-wise. This applies if you are just a guitar player writing instrumentally and someone else takes care of the lyrics. 

Some people are really inspired by horror movie soundtracks, or by photos of landscapes, or by the sound of a specific instrument like a sax or trumpet. 

Put what personally inspires you into your music and you’ll have a better chance at making something unique to you. 

If you are in a band you can also do this by having a general direction in the sound of the band and letting people contribute the sounds they like while finding compromises to make things blend well together. 

Easier said than done but effective when it does work. Having bandmates with similar music tastes goes a long way here because like I mentioned earlier, you don’t want to make a song that is 5 different songs into one. Make sure you are all rowing in the same direction. 

Wrapping it up

I hope the value you received from this post is to realize that while it’s very hard to tell when a song is good or bad because it depends on personal taste and opinion, it is possible to tell what makes good songwriting in general by looking at the practical steps for good execution. 

Of course there will always be exceptions because musicians are constantly pushing the boundaries of music. There are entire genres’ dedicated to breaking the guidelines and you should check them out for inspiration. 

Good luck and I’ll catch you in the next one! Subscribe to the Youtube channel!

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