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In the shower, at a party or the bar, in a wedding, a mall or a football stadium — songs are everywhere nowadays. In planes, trains and automobiles, ear-budded passengers hunch over their mobile devices, picking tracks to stream the time away.

Why not read a book or magazine instead, or start a conversation? Some people still do. But songs exert a special hold in our digital era, because they are bite-sized, portable and accessible almost anywhere.

What is their particular magic? What makes one song better than another? And why does everyone have their list of personal favorites?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found in something composer Felix Mendelssohn said nearly two centuries ago. “Music that I like,” he wrote, “expresses thoughts which are not too vague to put into words, but too precise. Real music fills the soul with a thousand better things than words.”

New York City soprano Martha Guth agrees that songs play a special role in expressing matters of the human heart.

“The text gives the music a specific framework,” she said by phone. “The music can then be character, it can be subtext, it can be atmosphere, it can be weather, it can be anything.”

Guth is specifically passionate about art song — or songs written in the classical style. She runs a website devoted to the genre with pianist Erika Switzer called Sparks & Wiry Cries. Art song is “different from other classical music,” she explained, “because the storytelling is more immediate. Art song performers need to be adept at creating worlds in miniature without the costume, lighting, staging and other extras you have in opera.”

Two years ago, Guth found herself wondering whether the stuffy formality of the typical classical song recital could be shaken loose. How might it become edgier, more interactive, more relevant?

That’s when she had the idea for SongSlam. Like a poetry slam, she envisioned a competition with a dozen new songs performed on a single evening. Songs would then be voted on by the audience, with the winners taking home cash prizes.

It sounded wacky by normal classical standards, but Guth discovered that the format worked beautifully. “The atmosphere is electric,” she said of the three SongSlam events she has hosted since. “Because both the audience and performers are incredibly invested in the outcome. Audiences scream for their favorites. And SongSlam is often held in venues where they can enjoy a cocktail or two while listening.”

Genre-bending magic

The inaugural SongSlam was staged last April in New York City. The social media vibrations were so strong that they registered halfway across the country with Mark Bilyeu, artistic director of the Minneapolis-based Source Song Festival.

“I wrote to Martha and Erika immediately,” said Bilyeu, “saying I think SongSlam is a brilliant idea, how can we get it to Minnesota?”

For Bilyeu, the SongSlam concept seemed a natural fit with what he and associate artistic director Clara Osowski wanted to accomplish with their festival. “Source [festival] loves the tradition that art song is steeped in, but our mission is also to push boundaries every now and then,” he said. “This seemed the perfect way to talk about the idea that song doesn’t live in a box or in an encyclopedia or a library.”

Bilyeu is “super-excited” about the new sounds on tap when SongSlam makes its Minneapolis debut Thursday at Icehouse. “We have 12 composers, each with a singer and pianist.”

Pop, rock, jazz, rap, classical, music theater, sacred music — SongSlam plans to serve up a melting pot of styles and idioms, as varied as a random shuffle playlist on Spotify or iTunes. “Stylistically it will be a smorgasbord,” Bilyeu said. “There will be a varied palette outside your typical chord progressions and textures that you’re not going to find in a recital hall downtown.”

That variety appeals to SongSlam founder Guth, who doesn’t think the best songs are inevitably written by classical composers.

“Pop and rock songs can and do compete with classical songs,” she argued. “Good music is good music. And putting different genres into small boxes does no one any favors.”

You won’t get any disagreement from Twin Cities rock musician and songwriter Chris Koza, who will emcee Minnesota’s inaugural SongSlam event. He looks forward to the evening’s genre-bending magic.

“Recently I’ve been drawn toward vocal, choral and art music that lives outside of the singer-songwriter, folk-pop safety net,” he said. “SongSlam seems like a place where I might selfishly meet some more adventurous-minded musicians and composers who will illuminate this new world for me.”

‘A song for everyone’

So how will listeners actually decide on the best song? What makes a great song great and worth listening to over and over again?

Koza reeled off a list of essential requirements: “decisive melodies, intentional and creative harmony, a strong rhythmic backbone, a well-placed hook and a progression of dynamics.” All are technically important, he said.

But there’s another, less tangible factor. Koza calls it “the raw emotional foundation” of a song — the bits of human experience you can’t reach with words alone, because deeper feelings require more to fully dredge to the surface.

The best songs do the dredging for us. In three- to four-minute capsule formats, perfectly suited to our attention-deficit age, great songs tell stories, hit on particular emotions or track moods along the happy-sad spectrum.

And no matter what your experience, Bilyeu said, there is a song especially suited to you — one that speaks to you personally in a particular way, while speaking very differently to others.

“A great song in my book might not be a great song in yours,” he said.

“That’s what makes songs great. They have the ability to take on an identity in short order, and for us to individually listen and respond, based on the personal experiences we bring to the table. There’s a song for everyone, and that’s pretty great.”

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at


What: 12 composers compete for cash prizes by presenting new art songs. When: 8 p.m. Thu. Where: Icehouse, 2528 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls. Tickets: $10-$15,