I wondered what it was about the music I liked that made me like it. If you want to write music that I will probably like, here are the elements that I came up with. I share them only for fun 🙂
Lyrics that say something worth saying – I tend to be one of those listeners that hear the music before registering the lyrics, but the songs I really enjoy say something to me through their lyrics. I like lyrics with a twist or some clever and unexpected turn in them. Brian May’s Good Company or lots of the work by They Might Be Giants really hits the spot. Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire or Roger Water’s Time are also good examples.
Melody – I like a melody I can remember and whistle. For my money, Neil Finn of Crowded House gets this right time and again. Melodies that are easy to sing along with also make me happy. Shania Twain gets this right.
Vocal Harmony – I just love vocal harmony. Queen, The Beach Boys, the Eagles, the Mamas and the Papas and the Carpenters all have killer vocal arrangements. I love these as elements of music. I especially love it when the vocal arrangement has novel harmonic invention and when this is set against the instrumental harmonic invention.
Riffs and Grooves – I gravitate toward music in which there is a strong riff and in which there is some instantly danceable and quite unusual rhythm. The groove is the beat structure which you can easily latch onto and remember. Air drummers will know what I mean. I love it when the groove has a loose swing to it. The riffs are usually courtesy of the rhythm guitarist. AC/DC springs to mind.
Light and Shade – I love music that has contrasts and plays lightness against heaviness. More Than a Feeling by Boston or Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit are good examples of what I mean. They take you on a roller coaster from light and airy to deep, dark and turgid and back again. Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps the master class in this.
Counterpoint – I do like it when song writers get adventurous and play one part against another. Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel is a case in point. Here one melody is set against another completely different one. Mozart’s Requiem is full of thrilling vocal and instrumental counterpoint, though it has to be said that counterpoint is not so widely used in popular music. Pity.
Interesting Bridge or Middle Eight – when a song breaks up its verse / chorus structure with a surprising or interesting bridge, I find that very appealing.
Arrangement – I love it when the musicians use interesting tones and instruments that may not be always used in the genre. The timbre of the piece and how the various instruments create the texture of the arrangement are things that I like to listen for. I refer again to Bohemian Rhapsody to give an example, but Echoes by Pink Floyd is another great track.
Sound Design – when the artist records the track and includes some sort of ambient sound design somewhere in the song, I find this adds to the interest and makes it easier to evoke moods or places (e.g. sound recordings of being on an underground train, or the lapping of waves on the shore with distant seagulls). I think sound design, as practised in movie sound track production, has a valid place in music production of all types. Jean Michel Jarre does this soft or thing quite a lot.
Unusual Words or Utterances – the is a strange one, this. I like music that contains some sort of word or vocalisation that makes you sit up and notice. ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down contains a word that sounds like “grrrooissss”. You notice it immediately and never forget it. Queen’s Mustapha is another example.
Vocal-like Instrument Timbres – when they use phase shifters, or wah wah pedals, or vocoders, I tend to like the music more and notice it. Hello Again by the Cars has a positively chewy synth sound. It’s funny how you find yourself mouthing the effect of the vocal like instrument unconsciously. This is a real ear worm technique, if you ask me.
Sound Effects – adding sound effects to music really interests me. I like to combine music with environmental and found sounds. In some senses, the sound effects can be used just like rhythm instruments. Jean Michel Jarre’s Zoolook album is a good example.
Stings – this is like a sound effect, but refers to the radio practice of having a very short jingle or sound effect, or even musical note, to punctuate the music. I like it when musicians fold these stings into their music. The CSI television series has background music that is often punctuated by stings and transitions. The sound library by Heavyocity called Evolve perfectly explains the principle.
Surprise – I love it when the song stops, or the arrangement reduces to just the drums, when there is an unexpected change in time signature or a key change. I love the music to do something unexpected, just as you get used to its structure. There are too many examples to enumerate, but Sweet’s Action is not a bad example.
Sparkle – I like high production values and for the music to be well engineered and mastered. More than that, I like it when the artist uses little high frequency instruments and sound effects to add a top octave of interest to the song. Ultravox’s Billy Currie uses the technique well in Heart of the Country. All of Suzi Quatro’s hits have sparkle. Sparkle was big during the glam rock era. Think T-Rex.
Tension and Release – these are partly song writing and structure elements and partly record production elements, but the essence is that the song builds to a climax and then releases it. Power chords in the chorus are the most common form of release. Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight is perhaps the most famous example of building unbearable tension and then releasing it.
Other people may, of course, break down the music they like and get entirely different elements. That’s aesthetics for you!