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
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 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
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.