Joyce DiDonato by Chris Singer
Main Stage, Vocalist

What Makes a Great Song?

by Warwick Thompson

Love is a red, red rose. Love is heaven, love is hell. Still, all the world loves a lover, even if love is blind.

And so the list of clichés goes on. However much we try to pin love down in metaphors, poetry, and greeting cards, nobody has ever yet found a satisfactory definition. The same might be said of what it is that makes a good song. Is it the melody? The words? The performer? A combination of all the above? 

Perhaps it is because of their inherent elusiveness that ‘love’ and ‘great songs’ make such a good combination. Yes, there are songs about railway stations, stately homes, and double-decker buses – but they are dwarfed by the number of songs about the pleasures and pains of love. Every one of the songs Joyce DiDonato sings here tackles the subject, whether it be from the perspective of an 18th-century swain, or a 20th-century dame.

But if writing a great song were just a case of flinging a few ideas about love onto a tune then – as the saying goes – we’d all be doing it. There also has to be a feeling of freshness and spontaneity, something that keeps the song alive no matter how many times it is heard. This aspect of a work’s greatness is rooted in an idea that Joyce explores here: that of improvisation. In the baroque era improvisation was a highly prized skill for all musicians, but especially for singers. Composers wrote a type of aria (the “da capo” aria) which repeated an initial section of music, simply in order to give singers a chance to embellish it on the repeat. Performers were expected to display fresh invention night after night – and a face full of rotten fruit awaited the singer who dared to use the same tricks twice. Baroque songs and arias later became notated and fixed in aspic, so to speak, so it’s exciting to hear them returned to their roots in the way that Joyce does here.

Improvisation is also at the very heart of the hits of the “Great American Songbook” too. These works are all rooted in the idioms of jazz, and written in such a way as to encourage performers to make them their own with new accompaniments and surprising melodic twists. Who would want to sacrifice Lotte Lenya’s “Mackie Messer” for Ella Fitzgerald’s “Mack the Knife”for example, or vice versa? (Ella Fitzgerald actually forgot the words in her famous live Berlin version – so she really was improvising.)

Which brings us to the lyrics. Divorced from their melodies, lyrics can often seem clichéd, banal, or even downright ridiculous. Who could possibly imagine the greatness of “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” just from reading the lyrics? As Stephen Sondheim has written, “it’s usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do.” So, for a great song that can stand the test of time, the lyrics should ideally be simple, and deal with universal situations (or, to employ songwriting jargon, “be relatable”). And, ideally, they should rhyme too. “A perfect rhyme snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place.” That’s Sondheim again. It’s a bugbear for English-language songwriters, of course, that the only useable rhymes for love are dove, glove, shove and above.

There’s an ineffable mystery about the way words link to turns of melody. Sometimes it’s witty and imitative. Handel often employs ascending melodies on the word rise for example, and in “With a song in my heart” you can hear how the accompaniment broadens on the phrase “as the music swells”. But sometimes there’s simply a feeling of melodic rightness to a word that’s impossible to explain or analyse

There are a few other common points which great songs share. Length is one of these: most songs are about four minutes long, stretching to five. This brevity means that a good song has to hook the listener in quickly, and establish the mood immediately. Is this going to be a happy or sad song? Ironic, or heartfelt? Silly, or scabrous? The songwriter has to let the audience know immediately, and then either intensify the atmosphere or play with the expectations it sets up.

And last, but by no means least, there’s the performer. It’s wonderful when you hear an artist who has something to say, and who can transform song with their energy. Piaf singing “La Vie en rose”, Bobby McFerrin singing “Be Happy…” – they’re perfect examples of the sublime mystery of singer-meets-song. And on that note (pun intended) we come back to the very great artist who is making these songs her own too. Great songs, with a great singer – what could be better?


See Joyce DiDonato in SONGPLAY on March 1, 8pm at NEC’s Jordan Hall.

Click here for tickets.


Warwick Thompson is an opera and classical journalist who has written for publications such as Metro, Opera Magazine, Opera Now, and more.

Photo by Chris Singer.

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