Critic and composer Andrew Ford.

Books, Music

Andrew Ford and Anni Heino on what makes a song truly sing

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What makes a song? In the era of downloaded and digital playlists, two musical minds reassess, writes Anders Furze.


With the burgeoning popularity of Spotify and Apple Music, it’s safe to assume we’re in a golden age of songs – collected and curated into playlists with less of an emphasis on the albums from which they came.

Open Spotify and you’ll find playlists organised by season, mood, genre and activity – all of which create new contexts for songs in the process. But does that then risk changing the essence of a song?

“Well, what actually is a song?” asks music critic and composer Andrew Ford. “It’s not all of the things you see on Spotify, by any means. A song has a particular set of characteristics.”

Co-writer Anni Heino

Ford outlines those characteristics in a new book, The Song Remains the Same, co-written with his editor and musicologist partner Anni Heino. The two analyse 75 songs from all manner of genres, cultures and time periods, in an attempt to figure out what makes songs tick.

“People carry songs around in their heads, the way you can’t carry a symphony around in your head,” Ford says. “So, it’s a short step really from that to saying, ‘Well, what’s interesting about these songs? How do they work? What is it about this song that makes it so memorable?’ ”

The book started with the realisation that “everything is called a song these days,” he adds. “And that got us thinking.”

“If a song by Pink has the same characteristics as a song by Brahms, what are the connections?

In the book, Ford and Heino argue that songs are relatively short and self-contained; have beginnings, middles and ends; often have a single point of view, message or story; and unite words and music.

“If a song by Pink has the same characteristics as a song by Brahms, what are the connections? How do these songs work? We’re interested in pulling them apart and checking the mechanics, seeing what they’re made up of.”

But why does defining a song even matter?

“It’s precisely because you can handle a song in your head,” Heino says. “It’s a kind of musical analysis that any layperson subconsciously does, when listening to a song. You think, ‘What makes this song tick?’ Interestingly, it always seems to be a very small formula, really.”

Adds Ford: “A song may have verses, a chorus, a middle eight and a little coda, maybe a catchy rhythm running through it … but it won’t be done in the same way as other songs. There’s always something original going on there.”

On ABC Radio National’s The Music Show, Ford brings an unashamedly enthusiastic and eclectic approach to his subject matter. The same approach is on display in the book: among considerations of Schubert and Bob Dylan, the duo analyse songs including Sia’s 2017 Rainbow, from My Little Pony: the Movie.

“It’s a favourite of our nine-year-old daughter,” Ford explains. “It’s there partly because we were forced to listen to it quite often – and quite liked it – but also to make the point that you can take a song like that, which has a strong appeal to small girls, and you can say, ‘Alright, why does it work’?

“Why do you find yourself on the train singing it to yourself in your head, when your daughter’s at school and you’re not watching television, but somehow it’s still in there?”

The Song Remains the Same arrives in the middle of a surge in interest in how music – popular music in particular – is constructed. Podcasts including’s Switched on Pop analyse the making and meaning of pop, while NPR’s Dolly Parton’s America unpacks the cultural significance of the star and her image.

So, what’s driving this increasing interest in the mechanics of music?

“The way streaming works, people find out about things in a different way,” Heino posits. “People don’t necessarily listen to an album by the same person [all the way through] often at all anymore. They listen to things that seem to be somehow related or not. That might feed that curiosity towards a particular genre or song.”

Ford adds that the flipside of the Spotify coin is that, “in a way, it makes listening to an album more special, when you do hear one all the way through, in the order in which the artist or composer intended it to be heard.”

“Giving a strong, vivid sense of the sound of music is, for me, the holy grail of [criticism].”

Not that he’s against other ways of collecting songs. Indeed, The Song Remains the Same grew out of Heino and Ford’s shared love of compilation CDs.

“We listen to slightly random compilations of songs, mostly in the car,” Heino says. “When our daughter was born, Andrew made a special tape for her that she might like, and it was mostly not children’s music.” Think 1960s pop songs – The Monkees feature – as well as “the odd Medieval thing,” as Ford puts it.

“Out of listening to those,” Heino continues, “sitting in the car together having those conversations, it began to take shape.” 

Adds Ford: “We’re writing as enthusiasts, aren’t we? It’s just a short step from being an enthusiast to being a cultural imperialist – where you say, ‘We really like these songs; therefore, you should too’.

“Of course, a critic has to judge as well – to pick the wheat from the chaff. But giving a strong, vivid sense of the sound of music is, for me, the holy grail of [criticism]. And it directs people back to the music itself. That’s the thing.” 

The Song Remains the Same ($32.99, La Trobe University Press) is out now in bookstores.

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