Why do some songs stand the “Test of Time?”

Originally posted November 28, 2010

Why do some songs stand the “test of time,” yet others fade into obscurity?

Have you ever wondered what ingredients go into the making of a good song, or why some songs stick around in our collective conscience for years and years? And others that were all the rage in any given generation are quickly forgotten?

Ever since the development of musical notation in the Middle Ages, each generation or so has given birth to songs that have survived not only in written notation, but in popularity. Even more evident in our day and age, since the advent of recording technology, is the endurance of some songs to the next generation and beyond, while the vast majority simply disappear. But why?

First, let’s analyze the elements of a song:

  1. The Melody – this is usually considered the “core” of a song. It’s the part you would typically whistle or hum. The melody in its barest sense is simply a combination of linear pitches and rhythms.
  2. The Tempo and Rhythm – the speed of the song and the “beat” or pulse of the song that supports and gives the song momentum.
  3. The Harmony – you know, the chords – the C majors, F minors, G 7ths, or F# minor 11ths that fill out the sound of the song.
  4. The Texture or Timbre – this refers to the type of sound, the musical colors used, so to speak.
  5. The Lyrics – the words that are sung.
  6. The Genre –  whether it be classical (used in a very loose sense here), country, jazz, rock, pop, techno, hip-hop, and so on. And anyone with children knows just how important this is – one certainly wouldn’t want to confuse “thrash metal” with “screamo.”
  7. The Production – I am referring specifically to “recorded” songs here – the quality of the sounds, mixing, and performances of the players.

One could probably list several more subtle elements of a song, but this list should suffice. So, do all songs have the above elements? Although they certainly could, they definitely don’t need to.

So then, what elements can we do without? Although rhythm is always present naturally in the melody itself, an underlying “beat” is not necessary. And of course harmony, in a vertical sense isn’t necessary, as one can sing a song as a single line. A song’s texture can be varied and still be the same song, and the genre doesn’t necessarily define a song either, as a song can often be arranged in an alternate style.

We are left then with lyrics and melody. But one can hum a song without articulating the words. And let’s not forget the thousands of “pieces” of music from centuries past that have survived in popularity, like the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Bach, and so on. The majority of the works by these composers are instrumental, with no vocals or lyrics at all. Technically, these works shouldn’t be considered songs, as songs have words by definition, so I’ll be loose with the definition for the sake of this article. And even then one may recognize the melody of a famous aria, but not have a clue regarding the words.

So it simply seems that a song, or piece of music, will stand the test of time if it has a good melody at its core.

So then, what makes a good melody? Well, talking about music is a bit like “dancing about architecture” according to comedian Steve Martin. No amount of technical understanding or analysis can create art. It is said that Paul McCartney, one of the greatest song writers of all time, can’t even read music.

However, there are some basic elements of a strong melody worth mentioning:  a good balance between step-wise motion and leaps – too much of either makes it boring or disjunct; the phrases need to be long enough to develop shape, but not too long that they aren’t somewhat easily identifiable and memorable; and more than one apogee (peak) in the line will result in a melody that is somewhat stagnant and without a climax.

So it seems to boil down to this: one needs to apply the “campfire test” to any given song to see if it will stand the test of time. If you can sing or hum the song easily with a simple guitar strumming accompaniment without the support of a full band, then it may have a chance of survival. Even better if you don’t use the guitar and can easily sing or hum it “a cappella.”

So let’s look at Paul McCartney once again in his days with the Beatles. I believe the reason that so many of their songs have survived well until now is because they have great melodies at their cores. A creative performer or producer can easily transfer many of their songs to other genres, as exemplified by the vast number of Beatles songs that have been covered by other artists. Although many of their songs are somewhat poetic lyrically, one could easily argue that many of their songs are very “fluffy” lyrically. In their original forms, production-wise they were cutting-edge, with their producer George Martin pushing the boundaries of technology and drawing heavily on his abilities as a classical musician. Yet, although many of their recordings sound “dated,” current arrangements don’t sound dated to the 60s at all. And although they used strong vocal harmonies in many of their songs, those harmonies are not necessary in the least to sing the song.

You can apply the same analysis to any song or piece that’s been around for a long time, as far back as you want to go. Can you hum it or recognize someone else humming it easily? Many of the great classical pieces that have survived is because of the simple element of a strong melody. When you peel back the orchestration, the flourishes, and other superfluous elements, you are left with a good melody. The great works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven that you would recognize today exemplify this clearly. There were many other contemporary composers around at the time of these composers, but most, along with their music, have faded into obscurity.

Simple melody even within a solo section of a song makes the point as well. David Gilmour’s guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” exemplifies this well. It is a very “melody-driven” solo, and is very memorable and hummable. When he uses his great technical playing skills, it is done to serve the melody, and not just to “show off,” unlike many of the insanely technically brilliant guitar players of recent decades whose music has been quickly forgotten.

I also believe marketing plays a valuable role in this process. A good melody alone won’t guarantee its survival. It certainly needs to be brought to people’s attention on a regular basis. However, once it is thoroughly established in our ears, its melody will determine whether or not our culture will remember it in the long term.

So, if you have children, and you can’t stand some of the music they listen to, take heart. The vast majority of it will vanish in the near future (in mere weeks for some artists and songs, as they are quickly considered so “yesterday”). But a small number of current songs will still be around in several years, whether in their original form, or redone by other artists to reflect more contemporary sounds.

So the next time you hear a pop song, apply the “campfire” test to it to get a sense if it may be around years from now. But in the end, who knows? I could be completely wrong. Only time will tell.

Kirk Smith

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