How do they do it? Why does a Beatles or a Michael Jackson song capture a listener’s attention the way they do? What is their secret, what’s the formula? If all of us songwriters had the answers to these questions, we would all be a lot richer.
While there’s no real “formula” to crafting a potential hit, there are methodologies to it. As anyone who has spent time listening to the radio can tell hit songs come in a few well- defined forms. This is no accident. These writers, producers and singers on the radio all know how to put together a song that will probably be a smash. So how do you think the pros do it? They listen to hits of the past and they use them as resources for their ideas. That’s one of the less well-kept secrets of pop songwriting. The way they make it their own is by using some of the skills I’ll mention below to make variations.
The structure of a song will determine what kind of effect it will have on the listener, whether it will be a hit or not. One of the most common and possibly the most effective forms of a hit to write is the verse/chorus. This song form goes hand in hand with the dynamics of the audience:
The audience usually listens to the story the verses are telling
And then the chorus will come around, summarizing the story as the audience sings along
Lyrically speaking, the chorus is going to summarize the main idea of the lyric and is going to be the emotional high point – the highest intensity section – of your song. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to include song title in there too. You want people to know what your song is called, right? Now how do you want the music to feel? Want something happy and upbeat? Make your chorus major key with a high tempo and maybe use eighth notes. Want something a bit funkier and maybe a bit more intimate? Slow the tempo down and use a mixolydian mode instead.
(Figure 1: The seven standard types of choruses)
Once the general feel of the chorus in place, we can start to think about emphasis. If you’re featuring your title in the chorus then the cadence is going to be your friend. By having the title “straddle” the cadence – starting at the beginning and then ending on the I chord – you’re guaranteed to have it planted in the listener’s head. Let’s not forget the melodic tools we still have at our disposal. Long notes will make any lyric, especially the title, far more dramatic. Ending on the downbeat, on the first beat of the measure, is a subtle but very common way to bring out the title too. What do “Message in a Bottle,” “No Woman No Cry” and “Born in the USA” all have in common? They were all massive hits and they all used these melodic tools I just mentioned. So how many ways can we use these tools? Well, there are seven standard types of choruses – choruses that state the title at one point or another. You can use all of the tools in different ways with each type of chorus. So you do the math.
So the chorus alone could have whole lessons written about it. But it’s not the only part of the songs. Any hit needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and the section that is going to make up most of those parts are the verses. As the verse is a supporting idea, many successful tracks will have verses that remain melodically, harmonically, and lyrically static. This ensures that your verses not pull the power away from other sections. For example, the same way that we use cadences to ramp up the chorus, we shouldn’t be using cadences in the verses. Instead, you could resolve to have your verses end on chords that aren’t the tonic.
I mentioned before that you’re going to be telling the story in the verses. If you want to build a conversational vibe in the verses, make use of short notes, a limited pitch range, and having the melody in the low to middle register. All of this doesn’t mean that the lyrics have to be boring. The audience is going to be listening during the verses. That means that the verses can make be the perfect time to bring in some complex, sophisticated melodic ideas.
But in the verse/chorus form we need two more sections to act as connective tissue for the verses and the chorus, the bridge and the prechorus. These sections function in similar ways: they connect and contrast with the material that comes before and after and they both build intensity into the next section.
Lyrically speaking, our bridge will contrast in content with the verse and the chorus. This can be as simple as changing the tense, by generalizing if the lyrics prior were specific, or by focusing on a new emotion. Musically speaking, you can make the bridge “move” with a different chord progression then the verses or chorus (and again, avoiding a cadence) or by having the bridge modulate away and back to the key of the song. Making the bridge a bar longer or shorter than the other sections is a great way of building tension.
The prechorus will also contrast with the chorus and verse melodically, harmonically, and formally. However, a prechorus will also break down the intensity at the beginning of the section only to ratchet it back up toward the end into the coming chorus. Slowing things down, lower notes and longer phrases will break the intensity down. To build the prechorus back up near the end, an ascending melodic shape and losing some of the space between the words will get the audience ready for the chorus.
Within a single type of song form, the verse/chorus, there are endless possibilities and countless variations to be made. But there are other forms and variations to explore. As you continue to hone your craft and create new material with some of the tools I’ve shared here, you might just come up with a smash hit or your own. When that happens would you mind crediting me as a co-writer?