What does it take to write a GOOD (or better even : GREAT) song??

Hi all :-)

I've been doing some writing and recording lately, the results of which I posted here on my page. It's one of my favourite pass-times writing songs, devising the melody around it, sing and record them, do a bit of editing here and there, a little tweak...It's fun!! And though I believe the stuff I do, in my ears, is not bad,  it's not great either. So, every now and then, my thoughts start wandering, and the question arises :

WHAT does it take to write a GREAT song, what are the ingredients needed? To be frank, I know a great song when I hear one, for instance "The Town I loved so well" in my opinion is one of the best songs ever. But that's an existing song. Now it's not too hard to write something LIKE that, but that would hardly be original now would it....So, What does it take to write an ORIGINAL new song. Or, should you, in trad style, stick to a fixed recipe? And should the lines in the song rime, or not nescessarily so? Maybe I'm too conventional on that, but I think they should. But I guess there are plenty good arguments that say, no, not really....and taking poetic liberty in the grammar, or......and so on and so on.....

I know there's a lot of folk around here that write stuff, so, come on ye all, enlighten me :-) (and help me become a better writer:-)

cheers, Kees

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Hi Kees,

I'm no song writer but I've listened to quite a few in my time! I would imagine that gathering the ingredients is only a small part of the process.  In my opinion a great song has to evoke strong emotions in the listeners.  They have to identify with what the song is saying, and in order for that to happen, the writer has to write from the heart, not from a formula, and that's what is difficult about writing anything, because you have to dig deep into your own past and experiences and emotions, and put your own personal feelings out there for the rest of the world to be critical of.  That's all sounds a bit deep, but that's the way I see it.  Hope it helps!


If I knew the answer to this question Kees I would be very wise indeed.  I have listened to all kinds of singer songwriter material over the years ( a lot ) and still continue to do, although its a mixture of Irish/Americana these days.  Did attempt to write some songs years ago but not great. May try again some day.


That would be something Tony, to know the answer....you could have a monsterhit every week....:-) But I mean, everything I do, it has all been said and done before....And well, maybe the answer doesn't really matter, as long as I'm happy with  my own stuff, and when it makes other people happy to listen to it....

cheers, Kees

I saw this discussion, which piqued my interest, but had to walk away to think about it for a while, to return with an answer that may pose more questions. First off, who is (are) your target audience(s)? Also, are we talking "music compostion" or "lyrical compostion" or both?

As a composer, I usually write music for myself, as an expression of something that has had an impact on "me". Almost always it's very personal. That said, my motivation may be emotional, political, spiritual, experiential, etc. But I have to present it in a way that others can relate to it,...to touch them somewhere within themselves. Otherwise, it becomes too personal and closes off the "shared experience". I believe what makes a "great" piece of music is the response it invokes in the listener. Sure, you, as the composer/writer has a vested interest in what is being heard/said,....but it's the listeners that decide if the compostion is relatable to them. A great song may musically be simple or complex. Lyrics would also be under the same scrutiny. I've written music that I thought was "great". It wasn't until I worked and re-worked the arrangement that the audience response satisfied my expectations of acknowledgement. Sometimes, even then, I didn't get the response that I expected, and had to re-evaluate what I was originally thinking ("Gee,...I guess it's not so good!!!"). I guess what I'm saying is: the judgement lies outside of you. The term "Monster Hit" suggests promotion to a certain group, a pre-determined genre that satisfies a pre-existing group. Look at & listen to that God-awful Korean artist, Psy & his "Gungyum Style" (spelling??). BIG HIT!!! WORLDWIDE EXPOSURE!!! Music sucks & lyrics are stupid. He's made alot of money on it and most everyone knows of him, especially Madonna (LOL). Monster Hit???? Then you have Beethoven's Symphony No.5 (Everyone knows it!!! by it's first 4 notes: DA, DA, DA,  DAAAA!!!) It's first performance confused and astonished it's audience,...and it received a "ho-hum" review. People didn't get it. But today, it is considered one of the greatest, if not THE GREATEST, piece of music ever composed. If you're looking to write a "Hit" you should be looking for a promoter that can tell you "what sells". I'd rather write/compose for myself and tweak it as I develop it for audience performances. Or just keep it as a "very personal favorite" and play it only for myself. ;>) Cheers,


Danny, the thing I meant is not to write a monsterhit, it was merely in response to Tony's remark , that if he knew the answer to the question, he could have a monster-hit every week...If you know the answer to the question what makes a great song, things would be easy, now wouldn't they ? But obviously, as is Paul, you are right in saying that a great song can only be judged by it's audience.....that's a single truth...

Hey Kees, Over the years I've known and worked with (a few) excellent musicians/composers. One thing each sought was a "differential advantage" in the music: what makes this song different from all others?? It may be a unique & catchy riff, or intro, or solo, etc. Lyrically, it may be a smart use of language, or chorus,....certainly poetic rhyming can make something catchy. Using standard chord progressions may make something new sound like something already out there. I think you're on the right path. Whether you "stick to a recipe" or try to introduce truly unique chord changes to enhance the "mood" of the music, experimenting and exploring what sounds good to "you" is definitely a first step. After that you've got to develop the song for the finished product.

Recently, I heard something on YouTube of John Lennon's development of "Strawberry Fields Forever". He started with just the main theme of the song. He also had some lyrics (not complete) of only one verse. From that he progressed to the main chorus ("Let me take you down...."). Eventually, he got to the point of studio recording and mixing. His first choice was to record it acoustically, then with the other band members, then a classical/orchestral version of the music,....finally settling for a mixture of all of the above. As a composer, I found it fascinating and relatable to my own "development of a song". Certainly, I'm no John Lennon, but I think the development proceedure is something to consider when writing/composing. Do it first for yourself,....then work it to make it better until your ready to put it out there for a audience (of one or a group). Also, your experience with Duralan Irl shows the advantage of having other musicians/composers contributing to the project. Be open, self critcal, adventurous,...and above all, have fun with it. Cheers,


hmm... good question here Kees, and no easy answer, or at least Many Different answers. I don't know if this makes sense, but it's nothing more than "just another opinion":

I believe a Good tune has "Depth", and has a "story" to tell: a beginning, the Main part, and an ending,  and all 3 of these can be of Any sort of level:  "The Beginning" could be anything from a short brief Intro of a few notes, to a full-blown "Ouverture". the Main part can be something simple, or something complicated, with key-changes or parts that create different Feelings. And an Ending can be something VERY simple (listen to the end of the "Elizabethan Serenade" by Ronald Binge: just Two chords...), or again, a full-blown "Finale".

I believe that a Good tune should have a Story to tell, and it Starts with a Beginning that has a way of "Drawing You in", a Main part that "keeps You interested", and an End that has Two jobs: Telling you it's finished, and at the same time makes You want to Listen Again.

If I could mention something of an example, listen very carefully to my Life-Time Favourite piece of music, "On the Beatiful Blue Danube" by Strauss: Intro, followed by 5 different parts, and a "Coda". If You listen carefully, the piece takes You on a Journey, and when You reach the end, it leaves You "satisfied".

I hope You find my opinion interesting.

Trixie question Kees !!!!

Who is defining "great" for a start? - we all have different preferences.

Does "great" just mean "popular"? - Well, songs drift in and out of popularity.


For me, its about several things - and the stuff I like may well be considered as neither great nor popular! Anyway, here is a list of what works for me..............


For a start, the words have to be well crafted. To me that simply means not contrived. They should have a flow that is as natural as normal speech. The words to a song are simply poetry and I see no harm in judging them by the same standards.


Then we must consider the tune. It must match and suit the mood of the lyrics. It's not going to work for me if the words are about deprivation and misery and the accompanying tune is a reel !! More than that, I like to be able to hear the words in the tune when the tune is played alone. You could get all techie about that point but I suppose it boils down to the rhythm of the words matching the rhythm of the tune. Its a bit more than that though because certain bits of a tune may (in my simple mind) match exactly to the pronunciation of the individual words present in the lyrics. In other words, the tune matches exactly with the inflections of the voice. A word of warning here as well, its easy to ruin a grand tune with a poor arrangement. The arrangement has to be sympathetic to everything else as well !!


The tune itself is also of primary importance. It needs to be a good strong melody that would stand alone as an instrumental. So, for me, it has to be a perfect marriage between words and tune. If I ever write any lyrics I always start with the tune and match the words to try and give emphasis to the mood of the tune. Then again, I write very little, have never written a "great" and don't suppose that I ever will. That needs talent and I have non !!


I would like to finish by letting you all have a link to illustrate my ramblings, but I can't ! There was however a simply (IMHO) great set of lyrics written as a poem a long time ago. I've heard it set to a great piece of music in my time as well but am unable to find a version I can direct you towards. So here is "the sound of one hand clapping" - a (IMHO) perfect piece of poetry for fitting a tune to. The crafting of the words, to me, is absolutely perfect. It was, of course, written by an Irishman !




Hiya Mike,

First of all, may I say that it would be about time that you stop to use the phrase "In my humble opinion", because your "humble opinions" are always healthy and sound observations :-) And neither do ye "ramble" :-) Your pointing out is always true to the bone. That said, I must agree on your choice of poetry, it's beautifull....and as you pointed out, it would be rather untasty to fit those words into some party-tune, that obviously makes sense....And when you say that a song is, and should be treated as poetry, I think that holds true as well, it's poetry set to music. I think a good example of this would be "Parcel of Rogues" by  Robert Burns, afterwards set to music, and one of the great songs of Scotland....a perfect marriage between poem and tune.

Anyway, I've been thinking this all over the last couple of nights, and I came to the conclusion that songwriting also may take a sound amount of immagination, and the will and "the guts" to step out of the ordinary, leave convention behind...I mean, when I write a song, most of the time I end up with four line verses, where every second line rimes to the first, which I think is rather conventional and common in Irish verse. But I also find that very constricting, and often makes writing an awkward thing, and  sometimes challenging to keep the riming correct (without using some poetic licence...) Also, when I write, I tend to use classical forms of the english language, to give the song a more "authentic" appearance, which raises the question "Should I??" (though I have to say, that  I really like the  "old language" that is so much better "crafted" as you might call it )

Well, enough "Ramblin'on"for tonight :-)

cheers for now, Kees

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