Archive for August, 2014

And finally…

  1. Credibility/Authenticity
  2. you know how you can tell that the Glee version of a song is not the original? It’s not believable. It may be well performed and have very clean and precise production but it lacks authenticity. And, to be fair, that’s not what Glee is about.

    Two cover versions that I will mention later, ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash and ‘Your Song’ by Ellie Goulding could easily have been the original performances. Sometimes you need to add a bit of grit to a performance or recording. Add something that is less than perfect but has humanness. The current crop of megastar pop singers from Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus all have character in their voices that can’t be faked easily. Listen to the way Miley Cyrus goes into the chorus of ‘Wrecking Ball’. That is a great vocal performance and you believe her when she sings it. Same with Sia singing the chorus of ‘Chandelier’.

    As I may have said before, pop music should be treated with the same respect as any other underground, authentic, credible music genre. Good pop music isn’t twee or bland. It should have character and personality and it should be defiant (albeit with a great chorus and a high standard of production). So, if you are going to write a great pop song, look to what credible influences you can incorporate. What styles are emerging from the underground? How can you fuse the sounds from those genres into a pop framework?

        1. Good Lyrics – this is a bit of a subjective one in some ways and, I suppose, a bit obvious. If you have good music and good lyrics, you’ve got a good song. Fair enough. However, what makes a good lyric is a different matter and opinions will vary. Lemmy of Motorhead (amongst many others) believes that rock lyrics shouldn’t be analysed; they should just sound good. John Lennon, who was widely regarded as one of the great pop lyricists, was an admirer of lyrics like ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. And I would agree with both of them to an extent. What a great phrase ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’ is, just like ‘Betcha Golly Wow’ or even ‘zig-a-zig-ah!’ Also, some of the things Lemmy has written are absolutely fantastic, they just don’t necessarily make sense. Take this from ‘Eat the Rich’:

    Get a sweet thing on the side,
    Home cooking, homicide,
    Side order, could be your daughter,
    Finger licking good…

    Or, ‘If you squeeze my lizard, I’ll put my snake on you…’ from Killed By Death or ‘I don’t know what I did last night but I sure did it good…’ from ‘Do You Believe’.

    These lyrics may not mean a whole lot on the surface (or even way below the surface) but they are evocative and they’re not obvious clichés and they set up a mood.

    If this is a rallying call or an anthem, you may want to give fairly direct instructions with your lyrics and include words like ‘shout’, ‘fight’, ‘dance’, ‘sing’ or whatever. Making that kind of song overly wordy will not help it – especially in a chorus. However, if it’s a different type of song there are a few techniques you can use:

        • Use the senses – describe what you see, smell, taste, hear, touch and what you feel. The more specific you are, the better usually. Amy Winehouse could have said, ‘sniffed me out like I was booze’ but she said ‘Tanqueray’. It becomes a much more specific and vivid picture.
        • Give a sense of time and place – that could be time of life or time of the day; it could be a particular city or a room in the house
        • Add a sense of movement and action – it will make the song feel less static and give a sense of development. Also, if you use words like ‘sinking’ or ‘floating’, you can almost feel the sensation of that.
        • Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same sound can make phrases more memorable
        • Use metaphors, similes and personification – can be interesting when describing abstract nouns. For example: if fear was a colour, what colour would it be; what would it drink; what would it whisper in your ear; what would it do with its hands; what would it taste like?
        • If you’re describing a character, ask the same sort of questions: what would they wear; what colour would the sky be when they were near; how would they dress; what would they do with their hands etc.?

    Take this verse from ‘Forget Myself’ by Elbow.

    Shop shutters rattle down and I’m cutting the crowd
    All scented and descending from the satellite towns
    The neon is graffiti singing make a new start
    So I look for a plot where I can bury my broken heart

    In just four lines, he uses alliteration (‘shop shutters’, ‘cutting the crowd’ etc.), hearing (‘singing’, ‘rattle down’), seeing (the neon signs, the crowd…), smelling (‘all scented’), a sense of movement and action (‘rattle’, ‘cutting’, ‘descending’, ‘bury’), personification and metaphor (‘the neon is graffiti singing’). This all makes this a very vivid verse (alliteration – go me).

    10. Sex – being sexy isn’t about getting your bits out in a music video or pouting or singing rude lyrics. It’s about being comfortable and natural in what you are trying to portray. It’s a kind of confidence but it may also be a kind of fragility. A gentle whisper can be as sexy as a funky groove but one is intimate and one is overt. Decide on what is right for the song and execute it as if it were the only way that song could be performed.

    So, if the song is about intimate things; if it is a conversation or a message to someone in particular, make it more intimate and draw the listener in. If the song is more of an outward expression of emotion to the world at large then you must project outwardly. And this isn’t necessarily just the job of the singer.

    A good example is ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder. The bass line hits beats one and three of every bar with the kick. It could have just as easily duplicated the main riff or played on every quaver (eighth note) but it is far more potent doing what it does. It adds to the groove and draws attention to the snare by not playing on beats two and four so each beat of the bar thrusts outward.

    ‘Hurt’ as performed by Johnny Cash is equally as sexy and he was 70 and dying but his voice was deep and rich, yet fragile and intimate and the simple arrangement drew the listener in close, like Ellie Goulding’s version of ‘Your Song’. You want the right sex for the song.


    Well, there it is. It took me hours to write and it’s probably all nonsense but there might be something there that inspires you. Let me know what you think. Or don’t. Whatever. Just leave me here in this windowless void not knowing whether anyone’s paying attention. In some ways, I hope you aren’t. Then when I grow up and read this again, I can delete it and no one will know it ever existed.


Following on from the previous bit, here’s the next 4 points explained. A bit.

4. Groove – the groove of the song is about more than just the drums; it’s about the interplay of a group of instruments. The first rule of getting the groove right is: get the tempo right. If parts feel too rushed or as though they are dragging, then the tempo is wrong. Often this can be dictated by the lead vocal part. Listen to the way the words are sung. Does it sound laboured or hurried? The second rule is: don’t play too much! Think about complementing the other parts and not showing off.

Know when to work with the pulse and when to go against it.

For example, ‘Family Affair’ by Mary J.Blige is almost constant quavers (eighth notes) throughout and follows the pulse very strongly, whereas a lots of EDM tracks will have a 3 over 2 polyrhythm. For example, the chorus of ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit (‘If you gave me a chance I would take it…’) is predominantly 3 over 2, as is ‘London to Jamaica, LA to Africa…’ by JLS from ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ or the lead synth part from ‘Dinking from the Bottle’ by Calvin Harris & Tinie Tempah and countless others. This syncopation only works because the pulse is very strong in the drums (mostly kick and snare).

Many reggae tracks will have a ‘one drop’ drum pattern, where beat three is emphasised by the kick and snare drum playing together; the guitar will emphasise beats 2 & 4 and the organ will support that but also play left hand on the quavers either side of beats two and four. Check out ‘Is This Love’ by Bob Marley, for example. Also listen to how consistent the percussion and bell patterns are.

Having this solid platform that is fairly constant and provides a lot of the feel, allows the listener to focus on the song on top of that. You also need to learn to needs to be bang on the grid, when to push and when to lay back. Have a listen to songs with a great groove and listen to what the drums, bass and any other rhythmic parts play.

5. Melody/Hook – now, this is probably the big one. Hit singles are usually packed with hooks, arguably more now than ever. There have been articles over the last couple of years ‘proving’ (based on scientific research or something) that all pop music sounds the same nowadays because it has become harmonically more simplistic, in that there are tonnes of songs that have four or fewer chords all the way through. What they don’t consider in this research is the number of hooks or the groove or the amalgamation of different styles that are in there.

Most big hits now will have at least two major hooks. One of these may be an instrumental hook – think Avicii ‘Wake Me Up’ or the aforementioned ‘Drinking from the Bottle’ – or it might be someone shouting ‘Oh!’ a lot – as in ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry, ‘Best Song Ever’ by One Direction, ‘Pompeii’ by Bastille (which is more of an ‘Ay-oh!’) or ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ by Taylor Swift (‘Oh! Oh! Trouble! Trouble!…’) Many songs will also have strong hooks in verses or, more often, pre-choruses. Repetition is key here but, also, simplicity and clarity. You want people to be able to sing along (or shout along) and get the words right (where there are any) and you want the melody line to be memorable.

6. Familiarity – the reason that hooks are so important is that they provide something that can be latched onto fairly instantly. This is also why lots of hit records sample riffs and hooks from other hit records. Consider Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ for example, which uses the riff from ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ by Abba. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to have replaced that riff with something new and original (and then no one would have had to have paid royalties to Abba) but that pattern gives the listener something instant to hang on to. But familiarity in a bit hit song doesn’t have to be as obvious as that. It’s more about adhering to stylistic and structural norms or conventions. I say this with a word of caution because I will almost contradict this in point 7.

Most of the biggest hit singles of the last couple of years have followed pretty much the same structure as each other and they tended to stick to the same dynamic shape as each other – although, to a degree, this was genre dependent. Hip Hop songs tended to have three verses and a simple verse/chorus structure but EDM and pop/rock songs were similar in the way they approached the structure.

Take ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry. This song had the same basic 4-bar chord progression running through it and the structure was Verse/Pre-chorus/Chorus/Chorus pt 2 (‘Oh! Oh!’ bit)/Verse/Pre-chorus/Chorus/Chorus pt 2/Breakdown/Chorus/Chorus pt 2.

‘La La La’ by Naughty Boy ft Sam Smith has virtually the same structure, except it starts with Chorus pt 2 (the ‘La la la’ bit).

‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii also has a 4-bar repeated chord progression. Its structure is Verse/Chorus/Instrumental Hook/Verse/Chorus/Chorus/Breakdown/Instrumental Hook. In this song, the chorus and instrumental hook both act as two parts of a chorus, with the instrumental part being more climactic than the sung chorus. With the exception of a missing pre-chorus, the structure is very similar to the other two songs. The dynamic shape is also very similar. These are three of the top six selling singles of 2013.

Virtually all of the biggest selling singles of the last few years have been in 4/4 time and most have had a strong pulse with the snare on the back beat (beats two and four). There are also certain textures, timbres and rhythms that help define different music styles that have been used. Sticking to these conventions will help the listener understand what they are listening to. They can attract a listener to a song instantly and they become convention because they work! On the other hand…

7. Novelty – by merely sticking to conventions, however well you understand the intricacies of the genre, what you are creating is a pastiche. Unless you add something new or different, you are not going to make a great record that stands out from the crowd. And if your record doesn’t stand out, it won’t get played and it won’t sell.

By ‘novelty’ here, I’m not referring to novelty records (although most of the biggest selling singles of all time could be considered novelty records – most of the top ten selling singles in this country were either charity records, commemorative records, songs from film or TV, or things like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’ ). ‘Mull of Kintyre’ is a classic example of something that mixed the familiar with the novelty. This is essentially a simple folk record but it stood out from the rest of the charts with its bagpipe chorus. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the 3rd biggest selling single of all time in this country, is also a novelty in terms of its structure, dynamics, vocal and instrumental arrangement but it is full of excitement, energy and hooks.

But what you should perhaps consider is not, ‘how can I make something that’s totally original?’ but ‘how can I add something different and interesting to make track?’


So, after laying my cards on the table the other day with my top ten list of stuff to make a great hit song, I thought I’d better start explaining what I meant. Unfortunately, when I came up with the list I hadn’t really thought about it that hard so the following explanations are a bit off the cuff. I’ve included the first three points here and there is a lot of crossover in these points but I’ve tried to cover some different angles.

  1. Energy/Conviction – a great song can be laid back and relaxed but it must be delivered like you really mean it. It must have the right kind of energy for the purpose of the song. So get the tempo right and get the feel right and perform it with absolute conviction. Any song should be treated like it’s the best song in the world by the performers, the producer, the mix engineer and pretty much everyone at every stage of the process. It may not be the best song in the world but it will be a better song for believing it is! ‘Something in the Way’ by Nirvana was almost whispered but it was the right kind of energy for the song. 
  2. Excitement – try writing a song that is exciting. Make that your only priority and see what you come up with. Forget trying to be clever or technically brilliant or fitting in to a particular style, just write something that’s exciting. When making the ‘In Rock’ album, Deep Purple had an agenda that only ‘exciting’ songs were allowed on the album. It worked for them. You can create excitement with tension and suspense. Consider how the ‘drop’ works in dance music. There is usually a moment of calm, a building of tension and then an explosion of sound. The listener knows it’s coming and sometimes a little delay before it happens can make it even more explosive. Some songs are just exciting right from the beginning. Something like ‘My Generation’ has an explosive abandon in the way it’s performed and the way the instruments work together – ‘Black Dog’ works in a similar way. Energetic vocal followed by explosive riff. ‘You Really Got Me’ by the Kinks demonstrates in its introduction how one drum hit can create excitement.  You hear that two chord guitar riff going back and forth and then there’s a ‘bang!’ on the snare drum and we’re in. Not all big hit songs are exciting. It’s not a prerequisite; but it could be the thing that makes your track jump out of the speakers ahead of everyone else’s.
  3. Emotion/Passion – OK, so a hit song doesn’t need to be exciting – ‘All of Me’ by John Legend isn’t particularly exciting – but if it’s emotional and heartfelt and demonstrates some sort of passion for something then it has a much greater chance of resonating with people. That doesn’t have to be in the lyrics, though it can help; it could be in the way the drums are hit; it could be a note bending slowly upwards on a guitar; it could be a big, phat synth part; a chord change; it could be anything and everything, from the writing to the performance. So, how can we convey emotion in our music and lyrics?
  • Use emotive words – abstract nouns that describe feelings like pain, love, joy etc.
  • Use verbs that give a sense of movement (floating, sinking, falling, flying).
  • Use appoggiaturas (a note that is not in the chord, resolving to a note in the chord at the start of a bar) – they create tension and suspense and have a yearning quality.
  • Large interval leaps are common in ballads, less common in more aggressive and faster paced vocals.
  • Switch chords from major to minor and vice versa – for example, if you are in the key of G, try going to a C minor instead of a C major. Notice how that changes the mood.
  • Change the rhythm or number of kicks and snares per bar.
  • Create tension and release it – suspense and resolution. Lovely.

This is one of those questions that is asked over and over and is never really answered properly. In fact, it’s probably unanswerable, which begs the question, “Why am I bothering trying to answer it?” I don’t know, to be honest. The idea just came to me in the shower.

People would disagree on which songs are great and which aren’t anyway.

I’ve written some specific things on musical techniques that could be used to make your songs work but this piece is less about the technical and more about other, perhaps more intangible stuff.

So I’ve come up with a list of 10 things. There is some crossover with some of these things. I could have made this list bigger or smaller quite easily but I thought ten was a good number. Not all great hit songs have all of the elements but most will have quite a few of them.

The order is inconsequential. It’s just what order I remembered them when I started writing them down after I got out of the shower.

In the next post, I will be starting to explain each of the ten points.

  1. Energy/Conviction
  2. Excitement
  3. Emotion/Passion
  4. Groove
  5. Melody/Hook
  6. Familiarity
  7. Novelty – something new
  8. Credibility/Authenticity
  9. Good Lyrics
  10. Sex