Jump to content

Hit Song Formula.


Nunstummy
 Share

Recommended Posts

I argue there is a formula to composing a hit song, or at least there is a checklist of factors the song must contain to optimize the chance of a hit. Opponents tell me I’m crazy, but I have spent many years analyzing why certain songs are so successful. I’m not the only one either. Vox did some Earworm videos years ago on the clues for why certain songs are so popular. The biggest issue for song writers and producers is putting their own taste and likes ahead of the objective of “a hit”. I can compose/produce a hit song, but I probably won’t like it {lol}

 

So... what’s the formula for composing or producing a hit?

 

Is there a formula, or is it inspiration?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If you have been researching this topic for years, as you say, you would have found it already, don't you think ? So what are your findings ?

 

All the marketing and distribition stuff aside, find something unique that appeals to the masses. If you can't, look at something unique that appeals to the masses, and copy it as quick and as close as you can without getting sued. If it is something you created, and it was successful, carry on iterating it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Fair enough.

 

I’ve been a performer and a composer all my life, but I also started and ran a computer consulting company for 25 years. Much of my marketing experience comes from the software world. As is the case for a lot of us, composing a hit has not been our prime objective. Instead we write and record our own material.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

"If creativity, and market success, were deterministic," then I'd be writing this post from a very-far-away island.

 

And – we'd all be flat broke, because everybody would be doing it.

 

But:

"Surprise me." Whether it's a lyric or a harmony or a trick of a phrase or a sonata.

"Develop that surprise, with a nice mixture of repetition and new surprises.

"Tell a Story." ... Poetically! (You've got five lines to work with. Good luck ...)

"We are here now, en-ter-tain us!™"

• Fill your "catalog" to the brim and don't stop writing.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"If creativity, and market success, were deterministic," then I'd be writing this post from a very-far-away island.

 

And – we'd all be flat broke, because everybody would be doing it.

 

But:

"Surprise me." Whether it's a lyric or a harmony or a trick of a phrase or a sonata.

"Develop that surprise, with a nice mixture of repetition and new surprises.

"Tell a Story." ... Poetically! (You've got five lines to work with. Good luck ...)

"We are here now, en-ter-tain us!™"

• Fill your "catalog" to the brim and don't stop writing.

 

Mark Ronson did it with Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk”

 

Success with a formula isn’t rare because “there’s no such thing” but because it’s near impossible to get creative people to commit to a formula. Let’s also bake the cake with a certain minimum level of talent and musical proficiency. Gathering the ingredients is no easy task.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Bruce Springsteen apparently used a formula. I worked with an engineer in New York that told me Bruce would show-up to the studio with dozens and dozens of songs, most of which were low quality. Only by recording them, analyzing them and repeatedly listening to his work, would his producers and management uncover a song worthy of being finished and released. Genius? I don’t think so. Just hours and hours of trial and error. Rare dedication to a difficult task.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 months later...

Lorde has written a number of songs that are brilliant, unique, and global mega-hits.

 

Lorde: “A lot of musicians think they can do pop, and the ones who don’t succeed are the ones who don’t have the reverence — who think it’s just a dumb version of other music. You need to be awe-struck.”

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Lorde has written a number of songs that are brilliant, unique, and global mega-hits.

 

Lorde: “A lot of musicians think they can do pop, and the ones who don’t succeed are the ones who don’t have the reverence — who think it’s just a dumb version of other music. You need to be awe-struck.”

 

I confess, I never thought “the formula” would include WAP by Cardi B. I guess there are exceptions.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Lorde has written a number of songs that are brilliant, unique, and global mega-hits.

 

Lorde: “A lot of musicians think they can do pop, and the ones who don’t succeed are the ones who don’t have the reverence — who think it’s just a dumb version of other music. You need to be awe-struck.”

 

I confess, I never thought “the formula” would include WAP by Cardi B. I guess there are exceptions.

 

I presume you mean that WAP is quite poor pop? I certainly think so. Most pop is pretty dumb, always has been. That's why I think Lorde suggests, you have to have reverence for great songwriting. You have to love it, be into it, groove on it. Be awestruck by the greatest examples you can find. Then create.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...

When you buy a book and read it, you never see the process.  You don't see, first, the way that the original author pulled ideas out of the air and weaved them into a story. (Actually, it might have first been a "premise," then a "pitch," all to try to get inside the door.) But especially you do not see the editors, and the other silent contributors who might have played some critical part in it.  You don't see who designed the front cover. Motion picture editors. Sound engineers. Committee meetings. Arguments. Agreements. Compromises. Crossed fingers. Financial gambles by people who stand to lose. Blind luck.

For instance: When you read that "Captain James Tiberius Kirk" and "Mister Spock" piloted the "Starship Enterprise" on a mission to rid a space station of "Tribbles" that were infesting a space station because of nasty Klingons, it might never occur to you that all(!) of those terms were actually decided by the 1960's strategy of hammering out one line after another after another on endless sheets of paper with a typewriter, without pausing to think, thereafter to pore over those many pages of nonsense and "pick one" in a committee meeting.  But I have in my library several books in which the people responsible confessed that this is exactly what they did. (FYI: The first Captain's name was "Christopher Pike.")

Author David Gerrold, who wrote Tribbles as his first successful Hollywood sale, talks candidly about watching his screenplay turn into a rainbow while the episode was being filmed, since every script revision, however slight, was printed (or, typed ...) on a different color of paper. (And he didn't have the final say concerning each revision.)

Yet, when you watch the final product, you do not see any(!) of this.  "And if you don't, it means they did their jobs."  It simply looks like magic.

Dolly Parton officially estimates that she has written over 3,000 songs in her lifetime, about 450 of which have been recorded by someone.  So, maybe the best thing to do is to "just keep writing and hope for the best."

Edited by MikeRobinson
Link to comment
Share on other sites

25 minutes ago, MikeRobinson said:

So, maybe the best thing to do is to "just keep writing and hope for the best."

I worked on the music royalties systems for Sony/Time Warner/Columbia House many years ago.  Many artists owned hundreds of songs, well beyond the songs were used to hearing on albums.  So, without any doubt, its best to be prolific and play the numbers game.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My late and dearly-missed father-in-law worked closely with [[a very well-known country artist]], and he very candidly said that "they would write a song, then throw it against the wall and see if it would stick." They actually didn't wait to find out.

Contracts in those days routinely required you to publish several albums a year, so basically "you had to meet deadlines." Furthermore, you had to sandwich that "studio time" between the weeks in which you were contractually obligated to perform live shows. Several shows a week, often with a long distance in-between them. You did what you had to do, and there wasn't much "time off."

Fortunately for all of us, two of the songs that he helped to write did "stick."  Exactly two, and you would recognize them instantly. However, there were plenty of others which didn't ... "yet."  They're still in the catalog, waiting to be found.

Edited by MikeRobinson
Link to comment
Share on other sites

8 hours ago, MikeRobinson said:

My late and dearly-missed father-in-law worked closely with [[a very well-known country artist]], and he very candidly said that "they would write a song, then throw it against the wall and see if it would stick." They actually didn't wait to find out.

Contracts in those days routinely required you to publish several albums a year, so basically "you had to meet deadlines." Furthermore, you had to sandwich that "studio time" between the weeks in which you were contractually obligated to perform live shows. Several shows a week, often with a long distance in-between them. You did what you had to do, and there wasn't much "time off."

Fortunately for all of us, two of the songs that he helped to write did "stick."  Exactly two, and you would recognize them instantly. However, there were plenty of others which didn't ... "yet."  They're still in the catalog, waiting to be found.

Any reason for the secrecy?  :)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...

Maybe it only becomes formulaic through repetition? It's just a thought but it might be an interesting debate.

Artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Status Quo, the Rolling Stones etc, all had/have different styles but fundamentally their careers were based on just 3 chords.

But you couldn't really say they all sound the same. So basically, repetitive chord structures could be called a formula? A formula that served the above-mentioned many many times over.

If you look back at the stuff that was coming out of the Brill Building from the likes of Carole King, Neil Sedaka etc, they used a basic chord sequence (ie, C - Am - Dm - G7) to great effect. And songwriters are still using it today so there must be something in my theory of repetition...or not? Maybe I just like to drone on and on for no real reason!

Either way it might make a good topic for discussion.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Of course if you haven't seen it: "Pachelbel Rant." 

 

Otherwise known as: "It sux to play 'Pachelbel's Canon' when you are a Cello player, because it consists of 8 notes repeated 54 times. (He counted.)"

In this delightful sequence, we see just how many popular songs were based on exactly the same chord progression as the Canon.  However, to be fair: "what made all of them different from the Canon is that all of them were distinctly different."

Edited by MikeRobinson
Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 12/18/2022 at 10:50 AM, Little Fat Bloke said:

But you couldn't really say they all sound the same. So basically, repetitive chord structures could be called a formula? A formula that served the above-mentioned many many times over

Very true.

These latest AI systems know exactly what chords, what melodys, what lyrics and what instrumentation are most likely to be a hit. Science.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

And this is the frightening thing about music technology, the danger of removing all creativity from the individual.

I'm sure it's a subject which has been spoken about so many times in the past: drum machines replacing real drummers, etc etc. But I don't think there's many of us who can have a full drum kit and a professional drummer in their bedrooms to lay down a groove. It's ludicrously impractical. But Logic's Drummer is more than sufficient, and if needed you could go the Toontrack way and get EZDrummer or similar to lay down your beats.

But percussion is one thing, creating melodies is another. Strumming a few chords on an acoustic guitar, or figuring out something on a piano keyboard is for me still the best way to nourish your creativity. It's where you come up with riffs, themes, interesting chord structures and so on. That can never be replaced by AI.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sometimes, "an esoteric chord progression" defines a hit – such as Stairway to Heaven.  A copyright lawsuit was filed, basically on the basis that two musicians were working in proximity to one another at about the same time and both of their compositions featured very similar progressions.  But the case came to naught when Led Zeppelin was able to show that they learned of the progression ... in school.

Another fine example is the country hit, Can't Fight the Moonlight, famously recorded by LeAnn Rimes.  If you listen closely to the song, you realize that she is mostly singing the same notes, but the harmonization is changing keys fairly constantly, elevating both the tension and the interest in what is (to me, at least) a fairly-unremarkable tune and lyric.  The first change occurs before the first lyric even completes, and I don't think that it is ever quite "1-4-5."  (But, don't quote me on that ...)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"Can't find the moonlight" changes keys between verses and choruses but not within the sections. The verses are in Bm/D, the choruses in Cm (the whole tuning is a bit off?); but harmonically pretty run-of-the-mill. Using the G chord as a pivot to modulate from Bm/D to Cm is to me quite pleasing; the "modulation" back doesn't strike me as elegant. In the further course of the song everything is moved up another semitone.

If you want an example for a true reharmonization (but without a key change) take Coldplay's "Paradise" which can also serve as an example how complex you can structurally get with a seemingly "simple" pop song - which of course defies the whole "formula" idea.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I just listened to that Leann Rimes one (Can't Fight The Moonlight). Not my usual stuff but I was quite impressed by the chord sequences - reminded me of some of Brian Wilson's chord changes.

I remember reading an interview with Paul McCartney many years ago, and he said the one thing they (the Beatles) liked to do was, say they're doing something in G major, then the chords would be the basic G - C - D, but for the Middle 8/Bridge they would go to Dm, thus opening up Bb, F, Gm etc and then get back to the key G major for the remainder of the song.

 

I hear so many songs nowadays where I listen and think: 'Now why didn't I think of that!'

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As I said: The harmonic structure within each part of "Can't fight the moonlight" is extremely basic (at least for someone like me): The verse is

Bm - Em - A - G

Bm - Em - A - A

Em - D - Em - D/F# - G - G

and the chorus

Cm - Fm - Bb - Ab - G

Cm - Fm - Bb - Ab - G - Fm - G - G/B

Not a single chord that's outside the respective key or that is even used in some kind of "unexpected" fashion.

When I heard Britney Spears' "Baby one more time" for the first time it immediately grabbed me because its harmonic structure included a couple of "curveballs".

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

34 minutes ago, gacki said:

As I said: The harmonic structure within each part of "Can't fight the moonlight" is extremely basic (at least for someone like me): The verse is

Bm - Em - A - G

Bm - Em - A - A

Em - D - Em - D/F# - G - G

and the chorus

Cm - Fm - Bb - Ab - G

Cm - Fm - Bb - Ab - G - Fm - G - G/B

Not a single chord that's outside the respective key or that is even used in some kind of "unexpected" fashion.

When I heard Britney Spears' "Baby one more time" for the first time it immediately grabbed me because its harmonic structure included a couple of "curveballs".

Yep. I hear you. Within my field (AoR/Pop/Rock) having a verse in Bm and the chorus in Cm is relatively unusual. And I'm not 100% positive but I believe there is a diminished chord in the Britney Spears song you mention.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

12 minutes ago, Little Fat Bloke said:

And I'm not 100% positive but I believe there is a diminished chord in the Britney Spears song you mention.

That's what I meant with "curveball": Is it a diminished chord (which would be a bona fide dominant modulating between the initial Cm and the following Eb) or is it just a G chord? The bass is going B-G-D to Eb, so I'm in the "G chord camp" here. And while G is the dominant in Cm it certainly isn't a straight connection to Eb (more like a mediant).

Also nice: In the second half of the chorus instead of going G->Eb as before there's a little harmonic insert G/B->Ab->Bb->Eb which suddenly ramps up the "harmonic density" for half a bar and nicely underscores the "give me a sign" lyric.

I find those little things oddly satisfying because they give some underlying complexity to the material without taking it into a completely new direction.

 

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The thing that I really like about the "Moonlight" arrangement is that it elevates the intensity and changes the harmonics around LeAnn's lead vocals.  Instead of demanding that she continually "rise to the occasion" as so many other songs do.  (Barry Manilow, anyone?) 

I think that it was a very creative bit of orchestration.  (And a thoroughly forgettable "official music video" ...)

Edited by MikeRobinson
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I just stumbled upon a hilarious bit where LeAnn – then just 17 years old and filming Coyote Ugly – was handed a pair of chicken cutlets and told to put them in her bra.  "Push 'em up!"  🤩

She must have been doing something right, because the song went to Number One and stayed there for a very long time.

Edited by MikeRobinson
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Restore formatting

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...