This is a great question for another article. But for our purposes, let’s say that songwriting is the process of putting musical ideas together to form a larger structure of coherent melody, harmony and rhythm. It’s the process of brainstorming that results in a beginning, middle and end.
What makes a good song? This is also highly debatable, but a question I’m more willing to take on. A good song in terms of content will depend on the listener and what they’re drawn to. It’s totally subjective. However, a good song in terms of craft can be identified more objectively, and will usually have all the elements listed above (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm, beginning, middle, and end) and will be put together in a way that’s pleasantly recognizable while still being creative and true to the message of the music. When it comes to lyrics, I like to think of prosody – how the lyrics and music work together to support each other. It’s not enough to have good lyrics from a literary perspective. They also need to sound musical when the singer sings them.
A good song will develop as it goes along, taking us on a familiar path littered with surprises along the way to make sure we’re listening. The melody (what the singer sings) will fit with the harmony (what the guitars, bass and synths mostly play) in a way that’s pleasing to the ear, using repetition to help the listener get used to the chord progression before transitioning to the next section and a different set of chord progressions. A good song will also have a good sense of rhythm and can make your foot tap with the groove, whether or not there’s a drummer playing.
For many people the songwriting process is tied into the tracking process as they start with a drum loop and build from there, recording new ideas on top of each other until they end up with a finished song. Even though this may be a different method than the singer/songwriter who sits with their guitar and notebook to sketch out a tune, the result should still be evaluated according to the same guidelines: Are the melody and harmony catchy enough to stay in your head after the song is done? Does the track keep your attention with new ideas as it develops? Does it groove?
Taking away all other aspects of the production, if you had to play the song bare with only one instrument and a vocal (or just an instrument), is it a good song? If not, the rest won’t matter very much. But get this one right from the start and the rest will roll out with ease.