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What makes a song special?

This weekend, my Grandfather was in Wollongong to attend a party, and though I was busy for most of the weekend, I did manage to get down there for a few hours on Sunday night.  It was a long drive, though, there and back for just a few hours with Grandad and my brothers.  But, naturally, the long drive was easier with my iPod on, and in fact was surprisingly pleasant.

But then, as I was driving, the song One Sweet World, by Dave Matthews, came on.  It was the version from Live at Luther College, the first Dave album I owned and probably the first CD I love in a real, forever kind of way (Check it out).  Oh, there were the Mariah Carey CDs before that, but this is the first piece of music that was really part of my identity.

When the first few bars of the song began, my heart swelled.  But I started thinking: is it because I love the song, or because of my history with it?  That’s when I came up with my latest grand theory:  the three reasons we might love a song.

The first is simple:  it is musically pleasing to us.  We all have sounds we like, sounds we love.  There’s something about the sound, the beat, the combination of instruments that makes something pleasing.  Sometimes it’s something you can pinpoint- like my love of the harpsichord and odd time signatures- and sometimes it’s just something about the way a musician or musicians have created a certain song or their whole sound.

The second is less musical, I suppose, but I think sometimes you love a piece of music not because it’s particularly good, but because it speaks to a certain experience, either past or current.  There’s something about finding the perfect song for a situation that is the ultimate katharsis.  Early this year, a certain song spoke with amazing resonance- and creepy accuracy- about something I was experiencing.  The situation is long past, but I still love the song because I understand it and felt, in a stupid, teenage way, it understood me.

The third is more accidental than anything.  Sometimes you can love a song not because you like the song itself, but because it reminds you of a particular point in your life.  Not so much thematically, as with point two, but more that any certain song may have been played a lot during a period of time, such that every time you hear it later on, it takes you right back.  We lived in the US for 3 years when I was 12-15, and there are some songs that always make me think back to that time:  Eve 6’s “Inside Out”, The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight”, pretty much anything by Sarah McLachlan.

So they are my three reasons for loving a song:  you can love the way it sounds, you can love what it means, or you can love what it means to you.

But the best bit?  The best way to love a song?  It’s when the three combine.  When you love the way a song sounds, yet find resonance in the words.  And as you listen to it over and over, because it’s just so wonderful, it becomes embedded in your personal history.  That’s a song that becomes part of your identity.  That’s a song you really, truly, completely love.

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