What Makes a Hit Song?

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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Right Said Fred - I'm Too Sexy"A hit song is one that sells millions of copies and gets tons of airplay. So when you’re assessing whether a song is a hit or not, you’re actually just looking at the final step: how is it selling? A song can have solid structure but get no attention at all. Songwriting success usually comes down to the musical arrangement, and the person who’s singing it. But is there more to it?

Those of us interested in the world of musical composition spend a great deal of time analyzing songs, and all the elements that work together to produce good ones. So we study melodies, harmonies and lyrics in a bid to try to create something that others will want to listen to.

But the most important aspect of a song is not melody, harmony or lyric. It’s FORM.

A song can be a hit even with a totally unremarkable melody (“Free Fallin'”). Songs can become monster sellers with only one or two chords (“American Woman”), and a song with a less-than-average lyric can sell millions (“I’m Too Sexy”)

But form is the aspect of a song without which a song will fail, no matter who is singing it, and no matter how strong the other components are.

When we talk about form, we’re talking about how the song unfolds. Form is what causes songs to be remembered after they’re finished. And form is what allows for sensible repetition, and repetition is the crucial element: Too much, and a song becomes boring. Not enough, and it’s too difficult for a listener to remember what they heard.

Probably the most popular song form is the typical verse-chorus-bridge format: AABABCBB, where A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is the bridge.

It’s a form that works brilliantly because it allows for necessary repetition without overdoing it. And the great thing about form is that it’s not the kind of thing that listeners are overly aware of. They just know that the song is working. So there’s no real danger that listeners will say, “Oh, not another verse-chorus-bridge song…” It’s what they want, because those songs are so easily remembered afterward.

So my advice, if you’re trying to write a potential hit, is to not get too abstract with your song’s form. And in fact, if your song’s form is clear and logical, you can afford to be more creative with the components of that form. So in a comprehensible song form, try to be creative with your melodies, lyrics and harmonies.

And so that you don’t think that the typical AABABCBB form is the only one, consider these as possibilities (Optionally add intro to each):

  1. Chorus-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus…
  2. Verse-refrain-verse-refrain-bridge-verse-refrain…
  3. Verse-verse-verse…
  4. Verse A-prechorus-chorus (repeat)-Verse B-Verse A-prechorus-chorus…
  5. Verse-verse-bridge-verse-verse…


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