The Nanfang / Blog


What’s the key ingredient to a timeless song?

Posted: 06/29/2012 11:24 am


This isn’t about a subject specific to the Shenzhen Local Music scene, but it’s certainly at the front of every musicians mind: What does it take? What’s the key ingredient to writing songs that blow people away…and continue to do so decades after they’re recorded?

Is it melody, groove, lyrics, voice, luck or what? Recently departed Elliott Kettler argued that every great band in the history of music wrote all of their mind-blowing music in the midst of their drug haze. He’s adamant that drugs push a musician into the next realm. Other people believe the best music comes from tortured souls; people like Ray Lemontagne or Tom Waits.

Whatever it is, we’ve all experienced it. We throw on a track with little to no expectation and by the 2:00 minute mark we’re caught trying to justify the steady flow of tears fighting their way to our cheeks and searching the cracks between the walls which we hide between in the attempt to understand. Why…why does this particular song take a hold of my soul and, as my best friend Thadd puts it, “pull on my heart-strings”? For me, one song that has this effect every time is “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Look at the play on words of the verse:

They are one person,

they are two alone,

they are three together

they are four, each other

and the metaphor in the line:

Love isn’t lying it’s

loose in a lady who lingers,

saying she is lost and

choking on hello

In this particular song they touch on all that is beautiful about connecting ideas, memories, and emotion with notes; creating a story through combining these tones in an order, then coupling with lyrics and driving it home with dynamic.

Notice how the finger picking by Steven Stills creates the feeling of movement, walking,  maybe raindrops and a steady flow forward, the emotion in Crosby’s vocal control (left earphone) provides stability and comfort while Nash’s trembling high harmony causes tension, making us feel so fragile, as though we could break in pieces with just a breath (right earphone).

And the music structure perfectly complements the lyrics. Minor chords usually evoke sad feelings while major chords make us feel happy (to put it simply). See how C.S.& N. craft their story around these emotions. It’s art. It’s honesty, and it chokes me up every time.

Take a look:

(Image from

The verse ends with, “Only to trip at the sound of goodbye…”  Devastating; real; painful… Life.

Maybe some of you reading this have never heard of Crosby, Stills and Nash and weren’t aware this song existed. Doesn’t matter. Discovery is half the fun. Surely after listening you’ll understand why I feel inspired to share this beauty with you.

Regardless of your flavor in music, great songs all have something in common. They all are a meaningful combination of music, lyrics, emotion and the culmination of a soul’s life at the time of composition. It’s hard to be yourself…but I think that this is really the key ingredient.

Rue Moyer is the founder of popular local music site Shenzhen Local Music.  He contributes a column on the music scene in the Pearl River Delta to The Nanfang each week.

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