What Makes a Great Hit Song part 2

Posted: August 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

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.

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