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  • Composing Popular Songs

    A topic often discussed among musicians who have not yet made the big time is what are the ingredients of hit songs? The are many ideas. One idea, for sure, is that a lot of people must like the tune. Liking a tune requires hearing the tune often, so that it becomes as familiar as brushing your teeth. Since hit singles became the goal of recording companies in the 1950's, frequent radio play was the route to popularity. The competition for radio play led to big business control of the airways, shady deals and some criminal involvement. More recently music videos have taken over and songs presented on You tube and other video streaming services get the most attention.

    In Aug. 4, 1958, Billboard magazine began to list the most popular 100 tunes based on sales and plays on jukeboxes and the radio. The first No. 1 it was Ricky Nelson’s "Poor Little Fool." Geoff Mayfield recalled: “If you found only one easy listening song in a college student's music library during the early '60s, it would have been Percy Faith's rendition of "Theme from 'A Summer Place.'" With a melody carried by Faith's orchestra string section, the instrumental entered the Hot 100 at No. 96 in the Jan. 16, 1960, issue and rose to No. 1. "Summer Place" enjoyed the hit longest popularity at the time, a record broken in 1968 when the Beatles' "Hey Jude" topped the chart for nine weeks, becoming the band's longest-running chart topper. No other instrumental to date has led the Hot 100 as long as Summer Place. *

    Some of the hit makers became rich and famous but often song writers and musicians remained relatively poor. Recording companies grew richer, bigger and more autocratic. Song structures and styles became standardized and most hit tunes followed a predictable form. Even today, a song writer should stay with the standard form and introduce only small innovations.

    A standard song is 3 to 4 minutes in length. A good range of tempos is 80 to 120 BPM. A piece in 4/4 time at 120 BPM with 12X 8 bar sections or 96 measures will last 3.2 minutes.

    Here is an example of song structure: An introduction is followed by a verse, a chorus, another verse, another chorus, an instrumental bridge, last verse, chorus and ending. Often song sections are labeled A, B, and C. I prefer V,C,B as more descriptive labels for songs that remind you what the content of the section should be.

    The verse is the narrative statement that can be compared to a stanza of a poem. Some songs tell a meaningful story. Others only have a few catchy phrases in the verse and words with little meaning in the chorus. There are many examples of verse/chorus dialogues in theatre and music of all kinds.

    In a meaningful song story, the chorus is an emotional comment on the narrative. Usually the verses repeat with little or no modification to the melody but the story progresses. The words in the chorus may remain the same, but choruses may swell to a crescendo just before the ending. When hit tunes are played, the audience will listen to the verse and then join in, singing the chorus. A chorus that is easy to remember and sing is a key ingredient of popular songs. Of course, there are songs that bend the rules and still succeed. My opinion is that some of the best music never appears on the hit lists.

    The hook is the real magic of a hit song. Hooks are metaphysical creatures that defy definition. Some say the hook is a catchy riff or a distinct sound that occurs early in the introduction. Others realize that a properly constructed chorus is the best hook. The essence of a hook is that the audience likes it and wants to hear it again. Hooks are often an invention of the song arranger or a studio musician invited to fill in the missing pieces as a song recording nears completion.

    An alternative song structure is a Blues 12 bar phrase with three lines of lyrics. There is room for the verse and chorus in the 12 bars or the chorus and bridges occupy their own 12 bar phrases. Blues are simple songs that tell unhappy stories. Verse lines are often repeated. The chord progressions are simple such as E-A-B7, A-D-E7, C-F-G7, and G-C-D7.

    Creating Hit Songs

    Hit Song Science is a service that uses computer analysis to determine a song's hit potential. The basis of the analysis is a database of hit songs in terms of features that are thought to determine commercial success. A new song is compared to existing hits and rated by similarity. There is no doubt that hit songs cluster in groups that share common elements. In part the clustering is an artifact created by the tendency of musicians and labels to copy songs that were already commercially successful. Some young aspiring songwriters are offended when labels tell them to forget originality and write a song like hit A or B. When labels look for new talent they look for variations of proven performances.

    A hit song is usually developed as a group effort with different talents and skills merging in the final result. Songwriters create melody and lyrics; an arranger works out the structure and the accompaniment; musicians arrive to add their skills and inspirations. A singer must take possession of the song and deliver a sincere performance; a studio engineer assembles the recording, often one track at a time; a producer organizes the whole project and delivers the recording to a marketing system that arranges radio, TV and Internet attention. Media deliver recordings to audiences who then may decide to like, recommend and buy the songs. Not infrequently, a song passes through many singers, recordings, and marketing efforts before it reaches the right team with enough money and the right combination of talents to turn it into a hit.

    Instrumental arrangements

    Instrumental arrangements can follow a verse/chorus structure with modifications. A singer may repeat many verses to complete the song narrative, but in the instrumental version, too many repetitions may be boring, even annoying. One solution is to replace some verses with improvised instrumental solos. Another solution is to pass the melody of the verses from one instrument to another. A dialogue can be established between two instruments that resembles a duet between two singers, for example a soprano and and tenor. The instrumental chorus is often louder and more exciting than the verse; but too loud or too long becomes annoying rather than exciting.

    Inspiration is the magic ingredient of good songs. When a song writer is inspired by a poignant experience, melody and lyrics may come together spontaneously. Usually, however one or the other emerges first and its hard work to arrive at a match. A singer who plays the guitar and writes lyrics can play and sing until lyrics and music match.

    Sometimes the music and the lyrics are written by different people. Both words and music have meter and intonation... one or the other must be adjusted until a match is achieved. See Prosody and Intonation

    Groove and Style Popular songs have a groove created by a drummer, a bass player and a rhythm guitar or keyboard. Song styles proliferated in the 20th century. The groove is the essential determinant of style, followed by instrumentation, and song structure. Rock and Roll, for example, features electric guitars and standard drumming . In live performances, the rock groove dominates and keeps large audiences pulsing with the rhythm, synched to strobe lights.