Let me start by saying that I don't believe there is a single approach to writing a good song. Obviously there are many different reasons for a song to be called "good". It can be good because it's catchy or good because it's subtle. It can be good because the musicianship is amazing or it can be good because the musicians can barely play. It can be good because it's meaningful or it can be good because it's meaningless. It can be good because it's popular or good because it's obscure. It can be good because it relaxes you or good because it makes you want to fight.
In fact, I think attempting to define what makes a song good often leads only to formulaic and contrived writing that tries to please everyone - but actually appeals to no one. Don't let anyone (including me) tell you what makes your song good or bad.
If we can't define what makes a good song (or a song good), we can at least establish that there are well-crafted and poorly-crafted songs. Let's use furniture as an analogy:
Two chairs. One was handcrafted from solid quarter sawn oak by a master furniture maker and topped off with a hand-rubbed finish. The other was bought at a discount furniture store for $30 and made from a clever mixture of "real wood" sawdust and glue. Even if you're a cynical contrarian - you can not seriously believe there isn't a difference in quality. You might not like the style of the handcrafted chair but you can't deny it is a vastly better chair. It's solid and beautiful and will likely remain so for decades - even centuries. The discount chair, on the other hand, will never be comfortable or beautiful and you'll be lucky to have it 3 years before it falls apart beneath you.
So what's the difference? Simple: the better chair was made with better materials, with more care, by a better builder with the goal of making something good and lasting. The cheap chair was made with junk materials with the goal of a quick sale and little thought to longevity.
So "good" in this sense is definable. We're talking about craftsmanship here. About something that is good regardless of likes, tastes, or trends.
Popular Does Not Equal Good
Popular and good are not mutually exclusive terms. If you're an artist, you should write for you first (and arguably only). Usually, when you try to write for an audience, your songs will end up being mediocre. Why? Because you can't please everyone. If you try to, you'll end up watering down the song, it won't truly come from you, and you and your listeners will end up disappointed. When you're writing (and especially when you're in the first stages of writing the song) pretend that no one will ever hear this song. Write purely for the joy of writing. Tell your inner editor to take the day off before you begin working on your song. There's always time later to change things - but don't let self-doubt and self-criticism get you stuck before you get started.
The irony is that you will usually write your best songs when you're not trying. I've talked to countless songwriters whose biggest hit was an afterthought - something they recorded just for fun thinking no one else would like it. Instead of trying to figure out what people will like, make something you love. Chances are a lot of other people will love it too.
As both a recording artist and in my role as a producer at TuneGopher, I've learned not just from the good results but, more importantly, from the mistakes I've made that end up in with uninspiring and bland songs. I assume because you're reading this that the quality of your art is important to you. I think there's a real lack of well-crafted songs out there and I encourage you to be the exception!
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