So you are bored with the day job, and the music career is stalled. You are sitting there in your office dreaming of living in LA with a swimming pool and a team of servants on hand to cater to your every need. All you need to do is write that hit single, because you know that will open the door to success. How easy could it be? Well given the millions who have tried and the millions who have failed, it clearly isn’t as easy as we’d all like it to be. The top songwriters make a fortune, many are far better off than the stars who we see performing their hits. So what is the secret?
If you are a singer songwriter, who wants to get to the next level of commercial success (and for many artists this is actually not their prime objective), there are some key factors you really should consider when you set out to “write your big hit”. Firstly, no one knows who you are, it’s not like the huge audience that awaits the next Stones, Bowie or Madonna release with baited breath and will force themselves to listen to the whole thing numerous times, even if they don’t like it at the first hearing. So lets go though the elements of a song and see what we need to do in each section.
As an unknown artist/songwriter, this is actually the most important part of any song. Most A&R people, radio producers, TV producers, music commissioners for gaming companies etc, get to hear hundreds of pieces of new music a month. Often you get ten seconds to get their attention. The biggest mistake that any artist can make is an over lengthy intro where nothing much happens. What makes what you do special? If you can get that across in first ten seconds, then you have a chance. If you have a unique voice, why not start the song with something special in the intro. If you are starting it with a musical passage, it has to be a Solid Gold hook (for a Rock genre think Smoke on the water). Great hit singles do not have overly long intros. Take for instance Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding.
Otis comes in after 8 seconds with the line “Sitting in the morning sun” after eight seconds. The whole mode of the song is set and by ten seconds, you know Otis has a pretty amazing voice. So the ground rules. Keep it short, sweet and to the point and make sure that you get the best thing about the song in before the tenth second has passed. Make sure there is some energy, emotion and excitement in there.
The verses are where you tell your story. The mistake a lot of writers make is to confuse writing pop songs with writing poetry or even worse, a novel. You are trying to instantly connect with an audience. The first time your desired audience will hear you, they won’t know who you are and they won’t be terribly interested. Therefore you have to grab their attention. It is far easier to emotionally connect with an audience by singing about emotions and feelings they understand than by singing about obscure issues which an audience has no real connection with. Of course as an artist you may want to write songs about any subject under the sun, but if you want to get a hit single think KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). A great example of a verse that connects is “Should I Stay or Should I go” by The Clash.
I think that this is a feeling we’ve all had, especially as teenagers (who are the largest music buying section of the market). The lyrics come in with “Darlin you’ve got to let me know, should I stay or should I go”. We’ve all been there and we all get it.
This is a short passage, often a couple of bars, between the verse and the chorus. Not all songs have a bridge, but a good bridge works well, because it does what it says on the tin, it builds the verse into the chorus. Rebel Rebel by Bowie has a great bridge, which moves the riff of the verse elegantly into a stonking chorus.
For most hit songs the chorus is the bit we all take away with us, the bit we all sing along with. These are the bits that at the drunken Christmas party, we all raise our glasses and belt out at the top of our voices. That is just what a Chorus should be. In musicals, we have the Chorus line, the singer/dancers who join in to add oomph. The NME has a top ten Chorus lines and I rather like the advice for no 9 – Living on a Prayer “Pro tip for singalongs: don’t start too high, the second “woah-oh” has been known to rupture diaphragms.”
A great example of a contemporary dance classic with a solid gold chorus is Crazy in Love by Beyonce. It’s simple, effective and a brilliant hook (must say this number has a great intro as well)
The middle eight
This is the bit in the middle, where the song goes off on a tangent, not all songs have a middle eight, Rebel Rebel by Bowie is a great example of a hit which doesn’t, and if it is good enough for Bowie!!! For many songs, there is a bit of a tendency to lose the plot a bit in the middle. Having said that, a strong middle eight can seal the deal. The secrets of good middle eights are to a) not lose the energy and b) to elevate the song to a new plane. Often a middle eight involves a key change or a tempo change. If the song has a good groove, it is almost fatal to loose that in the middle eight. More used in ballads than in dance grooves and straight rock and roll numbers. Don’t feel you have to have one if a hit is what you want, unless it is cast iron. For many pop/rock songs such as Dont look back in anger by Oasis, the middle eight is simply a guitar solo. This means the energy and beat isn’t lost
A great example of a simple and effective middle eight is in Please Please Me by The Beatles. This was the Beatles breakthrough song. The energy is mantained and the song is elevated.
Which brings us to the final element, the ending or the coda as its known. I doubt there has ever been a hit record which has sold on the strength of its ending or coda, often on radio DJ’s talk over this or cut it off. I think that it is important though, not least because when you perform live it is important to be tight. Many songs simply do the chorus ad infinitum with some ad-libbing. The example I always use of a great ending is Jean Genie by Bowie. This builds to a proper crescendo with a definitive stop
So now you’ve got all of the elements. What other things should you consider?How long should the song be? Well less is often more. In the 1960’s most singles seemed to be around two and a half minutes or less. Yesterday by the Beatles, which I believe is the most covered song in terms of recordings is actually only 2.03 in its original form. Most people are actually quite shocked when they are told that, thinking it is quite a long song. That is the genius of the production of George Martin. These days the consensus is that about 3.20 is right. I agree and I am not a fan of long meandering passages in songs. Unless you are doing metal or Shadows covers, few hit singles for unknown artists are enhanced by over long solos. Short riffs that are memorable are far more effective, especially if they are in the context of the song and lyrics.
You will not have a hit if there are no hooks. A hook is a repeated phrase (musical and lyrical) that hooks your attention. This is the bit that everyone remembers about the song after the first time they hear it. It is the thing which makes you want to listen to the song again and again.
The only other tip is that there is always scope for a hit with something quirky. A classic example of this was the 1980’s hit for Spizz Energi with “Wheres Captain Kirk” which capitalised on the fascination with Star Trek.
Such tunes have the added bonus of being regularly reprised in tv comedy shows and panel shows.
So there you go. These are all the elements for a hit single. Just don’t forget when you write it to send me 5% for the tips. And good luck.
Roger Tichborne has run Mill Hill Music Complex Studios since 1979, North West Londons largest independent recording and rehearsal complex and home to many artists. He has also written and performed music with The False Dots for many years.