“Bad” and “good” are vague and frustrating terms when it comes to measuring up music. What’s good in the mind of one listener might be awful to another. A better way to think about it is determining whether a piece of music is successful or not, and as songwriters this is a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts. We don’t have to personally like a song to recognize that it has standout qualities that we’re looking to emulate in our own music. Similarly, there are universal qualities we can listen for and avoid in unsuccessful music. Here are five signs that a song isn’t going to make a connection with listeners:
A lack of energy
If there’s a general lack of energy in a song, there’s a good chance that song won’t be very good. This doesn’t mean all up-tempo tracks are great and slower ones are bad, of course. Energy can show up in the form of a fascinating chord progression, cryptic lyric, or interesting beat. Music that doesn’t evoke emotion or inspire some sort of reaction in a person ultimately only takes up sonic space but achieves little else.
No original ideas
When a song’s best quality is that it sounds a lot like another song, this is a bad, bad sign. Sure, you might find some sort of temporary financial benefit to deploying the copy and paste method with your musical creativity, but your music will never truly succeed if it’s merely a worse version of someone else’s original ideas. Music that’s written to imitate ends up being forgotten in an astoundingly short time. So while it’s infinitely harder to carve out your own path by writing music that’s authentic only to you, it’s the only way to make new music that truly resonates with listeners.
Nothing human to offer listeners
Bad music often comes off as cold and unrelatable to listeners. Or, songwriters often get it wrong in the other direction and pour on the emotion so thick that the music sounds more like a parody of an authentic song. Knowing what to give and what to hold back in music is a tricky balance, and what works for one songwriter won’t work for another. But as a general rule, successful music has some sort of human element that audiences find interesting. This could be humor, a devastating chord progression or melody, a gargantuan beat that gets the listener’s heart pumping. Whether a piece of music sounds human or not could absolutely make the difference between whether audiences will want to listen to it.
Predictability and/or perfection
Music that sounds “perfect” and predictable often fails to go on to resonate with listeners and hold a special place in their lives. Innovative, emotive, and authentic music-making trumps flawless performances and perfectly sanitized production techniques every time in songwriting. This is why young kids making music in their bedrooms for the first time are able to create work that often reaches millions of listeners, while adults with ideal recording setups often write perfect sounding albums that no one wants to hear. Perfection and predictability make music stale and unlistenable in many cases. No, this doesn’t mean you should “mess up” your music on purpose, but that your tracks will always benefit from some amount of rawness and humanity, whether it shows up in your performances, writing process, or both.
How many songs have you listened to and then immediately forgotten about? Too many to count, I’m sure. This is a hard truth to accept, but a forgettable song is a bad song. The vast, vast majority of music out there features perfectly fine songwriting, production, and performances, but it is ultimately forgettable and therefore not successful. A song has to be remembered for it to find a place in the lives of your listeners. In other words, they’re going to need to hear the song and want to listen to it again and again. There might not be anything “wrong” with a piece of music, but it falls under the unsuccessful category if there’s nothing in it that will make people remember it.
It’s not easy to write successful music, and that’s why so many songwriters throw in the towel. To create music that truly stands out and holds the attention of your listeners, you have to be prepared to put in the work of exploring songwriting with honesty, curiosity, and resilience.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.