What Makes a Great Hit Song Part 3

Posted: August 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

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’ http://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/daft-punks-get-lucky-becomes-one-of-the-uks-biggest-selling-singles-of-all-time-2315/ ). ‘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?’



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