When Successful Songs Defy Explanation

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AmericaAmerica’s first big hit, “A Horse With No Name” (1972), written by Dewey Bunnell, seems to defy all “rules” for creating a successful chart-topping song. Melodic contour is almost non-existent, and the entire song is built on a 2-chord progression: Em and D6add9. To many, the lyrics were a bit corny and forced. But despite this seeming disregard for the “rules”, the song became a number 1 hit on Billboard, and remains America’s most successful hit.

This isn’t a post about bad songs (and “A Horse With No Name” is not a bad song!), though it’s always fun to look at the ones we love to hate. I want rather to look at why some songs seem to defy conventional songwriter’s wisdom, and succeed anyway.

We have the advantage of perusing the historical record and learning what makes hit songs work. And when we look at hit songs from the past 50 years or so, we start to see patterns and commonalities emerging. We know, for example, that successful melodies have a tendency to move onto a higher plane in the chorus when compared to the verse.

Some things change over time. We can easily observe that the typical chord progression from a hit rock & roll tune from the late 50s uses far fewer chords than a hit song a few decades later.

So how do we account for the songs that defy explanation? Why do some songs seem to ignore conventional wisdom, and yet go on to be hits anyway?

The easiest answer is that songs are not simply a collection of rules and regulations. If they were, I doubt anyone would have an interest in composing; we’d simply all be trying to follow the rules, and what would be the fun in that?

A song is an entity that is the sum of all of its parts. No one element works in isolation. A melody may seem, as with “A Horse With No Name”, to be static, uninspired and flat, until you realize that it’s probably the perfect melody to describe a journey through a hot dry desert.

And so if songs can be hits if the lyric is as deep as a mud puddle (“Shake Your Booty“- KC and the Sunshine Band), the chord progression goes nowhere (“American Woman“- The Guess Who), and the general concept is just weird (“MacArthur Park” – Richard Harris), why do any of us ever study songwriting?

I think some of the best music out there simply comes from an innate ability, where ideas come to us and are woven together by a natural understanding of how music works. But if, after writing a song, you find that your instincts have given you something that seems “almost right”, and you can’t put your finger on why it’s leaving you feeling bored or unfulfilled, that’s when a study of the “rules of songwriting” can reveal the answer to your problems.

The studying of songwriting is something that should be done in and around your own personal writing, not during. And in my opinion, you must study successful songs in order to improve. But you’re going to be frustrated if you begin the songwriting process by wondering what rules you should be following.

Use your instincts. And you may find that your instincts lead you to create a song that defies conventional wisdom, but seems to work anyway. And if that happens, trust your instincts. For that song, the rules will likely let you down.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Excellent information! I do, however, contend that Horse With No Name IS a terrible song… It is an ear worm, though.

  2. I loved this post. For as much as we study our craft, there should always be a willingness to explore and experiment. Few of us are ever as good as when we are being sincere and serious about our art and heedless of the rules. Rules can be useful, but inspiration and imagination are the trump cards. Thanks for posting this.

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