What distinguishes the great songs from the good songs?

For a Southern Gospel song to be considered “good,” its melody must be singable and memorable, and its lyrics must be coherent, Biblical, and generally well-crafted all around. This is a reasonably quantifiable threshold. 

It’s a little harder to tell what sets the great songs apart. Any number of factors contribute, of course. These would include a particularly well-crafted lyric, a particularly fresh main idea/hook, a particularly memorable or singable melody, and the absence of weak rhymes, unclear lyrics, a few too many lines you’ve heard dozens of times before, bad doctrine, and monotonous melodies. Of all these factors, which is the most important?

What is the most important thing that sets the great songs apart from the ones that are merely very good?


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30 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Are we including all songs, including CCM, country and secular or just SG…?

    • Or I guess country is already secular, but I meant other kinds of secular.

    • Just SG. All truly great songs are either Christian songs, if you’re measuring greatness by an eternal yardstick. And the greatest of the great are songs that are SG or would translate well to SG. 🙂

      • Maybe that’s a blog post in itself. You might get some interesting comments agreeing or disagreeing… 😀

      • Yes, I might. 🙂

  2. In the current era, songs that I call great and stick with me make a profound statement. For example, from the L5 song – “When They Found nothing, They Found Everything.” That statement will preach and I have used it directly and indirectly in conversation and in SS class.

    “Mary, Did You Know” is a song that makes you think all the way through – and it is a great song.

    The list goes on. “God is Great” by Old Paths is a great song – with a solid message, that makes a profound statement.

    Back to L5, from their original recording and still sung frequently by them, “I Am Redeemed” is a profound statement bolstered by the solid evidence in the lyrics.

    In addition to lyrics, the song must have the right music and arrangement. For example, “Mary, Did You Know” should be a simple arrangement – I think best acoustic only personally. Others – need something different.

    This is an interesting topic that may get a heavy response.

    JEB

  3. I think the overarching core for me is “what does this song to communicate?” “Does it mean something in particular to me because of my circumstances or experience?” A lot of music is reflective. Some songs make me think of past summers and what I look forward to this summer. Some songs make me ponder on my relationships w/ those around me or those in the past. In a Christian lyric, a reflective trigger holds a lot of power. For instance, “God on the Mountain” was a decent song in my opinion. But when I went thru something very difficult, and in the process, questioned my understanding of who God is & His purpose and plan in that circumstance, the song took on a whole new meaning for me.

    So yes, a singable melody, a fresh hook or memorable lyric is some of the glue to a “good” song. But how does an artist approach the song? And what does it communicate? Sometimes the arrangement of a song provides a boost about what it intends to communicate. I often think that so many “good” songs could be “great” songs if they used a different arrangement.

    Ultimately, according to preferences, distinguishing a “GREAT” song from a good song will be mostly subjective.

    • Good to see you around!

      It it possible for a song to be objectively great? If, say, more than 90% of fans in a genre would point to a “Midnight Cry” or a “We Shall See Jesus” or a “God On the Mountain” as a great song, is it fair to call the song objectively great?

      • If 90% can explain WHY “Midnight Cry” is a great song or WHAT makes it tick…then yes it is fair. But you’re telling 10% that they’re objectively wrong about their opinion. For instance, what if Midnight Cry was done in the same arrangement but not originally sang by Ivan Parker or Gold City. Instead, what if The Inspirations first did it? What if the Primitive Quartet first did it? What if the GVB in the early 80s first did it and it had a “cool, pop” (now a little cheesy) sound? Might not take anything away from the lyric, but you also might not quite reflect on it’s potential power.

        I think there would be a good study if we were to test social affinity. For instance, if enough people tell you what great of a song “Midnight Cry” is, many people might eventually believe it for themselves that it is a great song, even though they had heard it before, but previously never having thought it to be so great. I’ve heard songs and pressed SKIP. But every now and then, a few people will tell me how great of a song such & such was/is. I’m more inclined to agree that it’s a great song if I know others think so too. Even in that small of a thing, there’s less pressure on me to “fit in” or “being detached” from my peers. And in doing so, even psychologically, I DO believe it’s a great song. I believe it, because those close to me, believe it. It’s not a fundamental truth to me, so I don’t have to “stand my ground”, “justify”, or provide a logical argument on what I believe to be true (like I would in the existence of God). Not doing those things actually frees me to an extent, to like things & have some of the same opinions of others, because I recognize this opinion isn’t a matter of truth or effort to defend, so I adopt another’s view & do so gladly.

        “Midnight Cry” is such a great song! Response: “you know, there were some well-crafted lyrics & memorable imagery. This Ivan guy is a great singer too. Yes, I do believe it’s a great song”. The next couple of times you hear it, it becomes one to you. Especially after you visibly see the Standing “O’s”.

  4. I’ll tell you one song that never gets old to me and that’s “Forever Changed” by the Kingdom Heirs. Nothing greater here on this earth than the day that Jesus saved me and knowing when this life is over that I’ll be with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This type of song is what really gets me going. I think that any song that you can pay attention to every word and close your eyes to visualize that great day then you have a great song. I’m gonna go listen to it now.
    By the way I love Midnight Cry too. Awesome !

    Joe

  5. I think this has been addressed in an above comment, but to be a great song it needs to be sung by a great singer. I’ve heard songs that I love performed by artists who didn’t keep me listening through the first verse. If you give the best song ever to a subpar singer, then the song may flounder until someone with a greater talent records it. I wonder if some “good songs” had been recorded by a different artists would they have been “great songs”? The question also applies in the reverse.

    As stated previously, I believe a previous commenter addressed this, but these thoughts were some of the first that came to my mind…

    • I don’t know if I agree… for example you said “If you give the best song ever to a subpar singer…” which seems like you’re contradicting yourself, ‘cuz you already said it was the best song ever before someone great sang it! I agree that a good singer has to sing it for the RECORDING to be great but that seems different from is the SONG great all by itself…

      • Fair enough.

        But, this gets into how we measure greatness. Is a beautiful lyric composed and never recorded a great song if no one ever hears it? Technically yes, but I’m operating on the premises of greatness being.commercial success.

      • That seems like a confusing definition. I think maybe Daniel meant is the song great in and of itself aside from success. (Daniel can correct me if I’m wrong!)

      • I believe that the confusion arises because JSR is working from a starting assumption that there is inherently such a thing as a great song, even if it is not performed well the first time you hear it, while GVFAN might not share that assumption.

      • Okay now I’m really confused cuz that’s actually the opposite of where my confusion came from. 🙂 JSR said, “to be a great song it needs to be sung by a great singer.” I took that to mean he did NOT think there’s such a thing as inherent greatness in a song, that it depends on the singer. But I think there is.

      • Oh, dear, now I’m confused, too. Ah, well! 🙂

      • I think maybe you just switched our handles. What you said was completely correct if you just changed the names. 😉

  6. A great song is not necessarily defined by who sings but the lyrics of the song. A great song has powerful lyrics that will minister to the listener. I have heard some songs by artists that wasnt my favorite but was still a great song because of the message.

  7. AS a minister of music as well as a quartet singer, there are some songs that transcend the artist to be memorable. For example, Sweet Beulah Land was recorded by a great singer, but I have seen it move people greatly when sung by groups, choirs, and soloists. The same does go for Midnight Cry. A recent song in another Christian genre that has had an immediate impact is “10,000 Reasons.” The artist recording is very good, but in the last four months it has been used in my church as a solo, as a worship song led by a guest artist, and as a congregational song in a regular worship set.

    • This prompts the question: Are the songs that are truly the greatest songs that are still clearly great even in the hands of a subpar singer?

      • I will listen to a great song sung by anybody as long as they dont butcher the song.

  8. A great song in my opinion is a song that has a strong biblical doctrine or one that just lifts up our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.If a song will come to you while you are going THROUGH a hard time and helps you spiritually even when you have not even listen to that song at all but the song comes the words melody ext. That I believe is a great song like His Grace Is Sufficient,Masterpiece Of Mercy,Then I Met The Master ,We Believe,Amazing Love ,O For A Thousands Tongues To Sing are among the great songs in my opinion and yes I have heard SG groups do Amazing Love .Daniel thanks for some great blogs .My friend and I were just talking about how important song line up and what you sing to the people God has given you to minister to is.We have seen that the more we sing and it takes a lot of prayer for us that we do the songs that God wants us to do not the songs we want to do the SG singers have that same responsibility to their crowds . So our last line up we did was Please Forgive Me, Walk Away Free,Amazing Love,O For A Thousands Tongues and Every Cry is Heard after much prayer and changing what we were singing many times we finally had a peace about it.And that was what the people needed .So if you ever wonder SG groups probably do the same thing pray about what God would have them to sing .And great songs lift up Jesus Name help encourage the Christians Going THROUGH a hard time help point people to the Gospel and give people HOPE.

  9. Interesting topic Daniel. In my opinion there are two kinds of great songs and really both types have great hook, great lyrics, great music, and most definitely a great singer. The first type of great song are the ones that reach out and grab you. Im talking about those songs that as long as you live you’ll remember where you were the first time you heard them. “The King Is Coming” was one of those songs. I dont know if it’s God’s anointing or what but there are just certain songs that have “It”. The second type are those that just seem to grow on you. An example for me would be. “I Cant Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)”. Im old enough to have purchased the Kingsmen album that had that song on it back in the 70’s. It wasnt my favorite songs at the time, but as the years pass by that song has become one of my favorites. The message is timeless. Ive heard that Bill Gaither tells aspiring song writers to write songs that people will be singing twenty years from now. Maybe that is another criteria for a great song.

  10. The best indicator that a song is great is when all of the elements listed in your original post are combined to evoke an emotional response. A great song is felt more so than heard.

    Good songs can accomplish most of what is discussed above, i.e. deliver of a strong doctrinal message, convey of a good idea and a memorable hook, exhibit a good and memorable melody, demonstrate good lyric crafting, and be performed with excellence. Most of what we here today are good songs. Great songs have that one intangible ingredient that stirs the soul. They are rare.

    The great songs discussed here are superb examples of this point.

    Keep up the good work, Daniel. I really enjoy the topics.

    Best regards,
    Rick Shelton

    • I think I agree; perhaps what sets a great song apart from a good song is ultimately intangible.

      I think that every era has had quite a few weak songs, a number of good songs, and a very few great songs. I collect hymnals. Take an average hymnal from 100, 150, 200 years ago. It had a few great songs, a number of good songs, and lots of weak songs. This even applies to the best of the best. The same hymnal that gave us “Amazing Grace” (Olney Hymns) also gave us “There Is a Fountain,” and, while it was at it, a couple that aren’t top 100 but are still in circulation, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” That’s really not bad at all for one hymnal – far better than most, in fact.

  11. Well, as an accomplished singer, there are things that come into play that make a good song great.
    1) the heart. Any one person can sing a Gospel song, but if they’re doing it to put on a show, it makes a message inefective. Having your heart in a proper relationship is so important, whether you’re singing a peppy song or a ballad. Your heart comes out in your actions.
    2) musicianship. Having the ability to be on pitch and have proper dynamics with create a more effectiveness than if you sang in monotone with no emotion. As I commented in an earlier post, a person can be singing their heart out on stage and had horrible musicianship. Would that make a song effective?
    3) lyrics that are Biblicly true. I’ve heard so many songs, even a few in Southern Gospel, that will be said that can be questionable as to whether they are true based on what God says in His Word. I have sung songs like that that have caused a lot of confussion and discouragement because they have learned otherwise. Songs that will also use lyrics that come strait from verses in the Bible help bring out the effectiveness.
    That is, in my oppinion, what distinguises a good song from a great song. 🙂

  12. I agree with what has been said above. Most of the good points have been brought out by previous commenters, allow me to echo some of them.

    Powerful lyrics alone cannot comprise a great song. Music, instrumental or vocal, has the ability to stir people’s emotions; joy, sorrow, e.t.c.
    If I were to listen to Amazing Grace done in a heavy metal rock style, with the singer doing his best to sound like he is demon possessed, hoarse voice and all, my emotions would of course be stirred, I would weep and wail like a widow whose hands have been relieved of her suckling babe by death. However if the same song were to be sung in a gloriously crafted manner that lacks flaws, sweet and harmonious, I would weep like a widow whose child and husband are restored to her in healthy condition from the hands of death.

    Good lyrics alone don’t make a song great, for if the lyrics of a great song were to be spoken by a preacher lazily, they would have little impact on the listeners, but if they were to be spoken with vigour by a powerful speaker (say, Billy Graham), many would request to be baptized. So it matters how a song with great lyrics is sung. No wonder gospel artists, when covering a song previously done by another, should strive to do better than the other, lest the great song lose its greatness in their hands. Caution should be taken when arranging songs that have been sung by a million other singers, if you water down the quality of your song, you lessen its appeal even if the lyrics remain intact.

    • I don’t think great lyrics alone make a great song either. It’s the combination of lyrics and melody. But a great lyric together with a great melody is a great song no matter who sings it.