I’m a musician. In particular, my primary interest is in creating original music.
And when I make music, I want it to touch other people like some of my favorite music did to me. So I started analyzing music that spoke to me, to learn what made it so powerful.
Over the years I’ve written and made videos about my analysis. But I realized that the content was a bit technical, it only spoke to a small section of songwriters. I rather wanted to share my thoughts with fellow music fans.
So in 2023 I am re-launching my music commentary series. On YouTube it’ll be called “The Power of Music Show.” I will be highlighting a song’s strength by looking at these four layers:
Lyrics (for songs with words)
Just as a movie or a play wouldn’t be good without a good script, neither would a song without good songwriting.
This seems obvious, but from what I can tell the point hasn’t sunk in to many artists. Or rather, there is shortage of understanding about what makes a good song. Artists don’t have high standards when it comes to songs. Instead they try to cover up mediocre songs with high-level performance or production.
What makes a good song? The tried-and-true test of playing it on an acoustic guitar or a single piano is a good one. Does the song, when played in the simplest, most spare format, still grab your attention and keep it?
This test may not 100% apply to some metal or progressive songs, but it’s a worthy consideration. The most potent songs often deliver when stripped down to bare essentials. (Some even sound better.)
Fresh sounding chords, attention-grabbing melodies and catchy lyrics. They all contribute to making a song memorable. A well-written song is a great foundation to powerful music.
Arrangement refers to the instrumentation and the parts each of those instruments play. This is a powerful element that is seldom discussed. There is a quote that says there are no bad songs, just badly presented songs. (was it BB King?) If a song is like a person, arrangement is like costume, hair and makeup. It can dramatically change how the person comes across. It’s hard to polish a turd but skilled arrangers may be able to pull it off.
Where songwriting ends and arrangement begins is sometimes blurry. Certain instrumentation or parts they play become a big part of that song’s identity. The point is not to argue where the divide is. The concern is for arrangement to bring out all the potential in the song.
Of the four main elements of musicmaking, this one may be the most powerful. For great singers you often hear comments like, you can sing a phonebook and I’ll still listen. Strong performance can uplift mediocre songs. It can stand out in spite of mundane arrangements. It can cut through cheap productions. There is a reason when one thinks of musicians, they think of people practicing this craft. Performance can make or break music experience. It’s the very heart of music.
Production refers to the technical environment in which musical performance is presented. The physical settings like concert halls or recording studios. The production tools like microphones, speakers, mixing console. Mixing as the skill to balance out different parts to present a cohesive whole. If it’s a live performance, the visual elements play a part, too.
Production is the final layer in musicmaking. And the part that is at the end of the chain, closest to the audience. Bad production can ruin the delivery of good songwriting, arrangement and performance. Good production can mask the fact that the earlier three layers may not be very strong.
Four Layers to Powerful Music
While they may not be of equal importance, a musical experience always has all four layers. And they all have to be of certain quality to create powerful music.
Which is a lot. No wonder that even though the world is flooded with music, good ones remain valuable and in demand. There is already more than enough music to last one’s lifetime. But there remains thirst for new powerful music. And just as importantly, there are people with desire to create.
So let us take a deeper look into the power of music. Uncover their secrets. So that musicians can be empowered to create more of it. And music fans get a better supply of new music. Enriching our lives and inspiring us to live a fuller, happier life.