Can Studying Old Hit Songs Help Us Today?

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The Eagles: Hotel CaliforniaIt’s important to stay current in the songwriting world, and be familiar with what the new music of today sounds like. It keeps you up-to-date particularly with the sound and performance style of today’s music, which is always changing. But you need to be doing more than just making sure your song’s style is fresh and current. You need to be strengthening your songwriting skill. And in my opinion, you can learn as much or more from old hits as you can from today’s.

There’s an important reason why old hits can help even more than current hits. The success of today’s songs is strongly influenced by the rather temporary notion of the performers’ personal popularity. And so the popularity of a song doesn’t necessarily mean that the song is a good model for songwriters.

History has a way of filtering bad (or at least unimpressive) songs from our view. So while in 1977 The Eagles’ “Hotel California” was no. 19 on Billboard, “Torn Between Two Lovers” (Mary MacGregor) was no. 10. History, however, has shown “Hotel California” to have much more staying power, and is, I think all would agree, a much stronger song in every way.

And you’re many, many times more likely to hear “Hotel California” than “Torn Between Two Lovers” on any given day on any radio station.

So history allows us to look at a song’s success without the influence of media hype. Take a look at any listing of Billboard hit songs (see here), and you’ll probably find yourself saying, “THAT was a hit?” many times!

Once you’ve removed songs that became hits because of hype (and it’s rather easy to do in hindsight), you’re left with some really impressive groups and music that can strengthen your songwriting skill.

Which brings me to an important point. How can a hit song from, say, 1960, help you today? Surely musical structure has changed so much that the songs from that long ago don’t really work the same way.

You’d be surprised. Performance style accounts for the vast majority of difference between old songs and new. It’s relatively easy to take an old song, and dress it up with some performance and instrumental changes, and bang! you’ve got a song that sounds like it was written yesterday.

There are tons of songs that you should be listening to that will serve as great models for basic hit song composition. I’ve listed just a few below, out of countless great hits, in chronological order. They were all hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and all have their own particular strengths.

Please click below to add your comments, particularly favourite songs that have been models for you.

  • Jailhouse Rock (Elvis Presley, 1957)
  • I want to Hold Your Hand (The Beatles, 1964)
  • All Right Now (Free, 1970)
  • Bennie and the Jets (Elton John, 1974)
  • Hotel California (The Eagles, 1977)
  • Jessie’s Girl (Rick Springfield, 1981)
  • The End of the Innocence (Don Henley, 1989)
  • Building a Mystery (Sarah McLachlin, 1997)


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Pingback: Study old hits for new ideas « Make It In Music Daily

  2. Lynyrd Skynyrd – I Need You, Georgia Peaches, Four Walls of Raiford, I know a Little.
    Hendrix – Red House, Wind Cries Mary
    J. Geils Band – Detroit Breakdown, Stoop down #39, I’m not rough
    I like Red Hot chili peppers and the roots. I’m goin for a little bit of blues, rock with the right blend of funky bass licks and really strong drumming. and tough sounding vocals

  3. What a great point you make in this post. Older tunes for me are:

    Brown Sugar, Stones
    Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Stones
    Bargain, The Who
    Runnin’ Down A Dream, Petty
    Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
    The Night Before, The Beatles
    Lodi, Creedence
    Losing My Religion, REM
    Black or White, MJ
    Billie Jean, MJ
    I’m a Believer, Monkees
    Good Vibrations, Beach Boys
    Loser, Beck

    There are so many!!!

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