Learn from history! Here are the ten most common characteristics of hit songs, no matter when they were written.
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If you’re a songwriter and you aren’t listening to music from a decade or more ago, you’re missing out on an amazing opportunity to improve your songwriting skills. There are lots of differences between hits of the 1960s and hits today. But the main difference is performance style. Generally, the overall structural elements that made songs into hits 40 years ago are the same elements you’ll find in hit songs today.
So studying hit songs from any and all eras is time well spent if you want to improve.
What follows is a list of ten very common characteristics that you’ll find in most hit songs of any era. Not all hit songs exhibit all of them, but you’ll find that the great majority of successful songs can lay claim to most of them:
- The chorus melody tends to be higher in pitch than the verse melody.
- Verse lyrics ask questions, describe people and situations, and chorus lyrics answer questions and describe emotions.
- Most of the chord progressions, even the more fragile ones, work to pinpoint the tonic note and chord as being the harmonic and melodic goal.
- Chorus instruments play higher and louder than verse instruments.
- The chorus accompaniment is usually rhythmically busier than the verse (though chorus lyrics tend to use longer notes).
- Energy increases as a song proceeds from beginning to end. In the majority of songs, this increase is subtle.
- The key of a song is chosen to maximize the potential energy of a song, with vocal range being a strong determining factor.
- Songs often include a unique element to differentiate it from similar songs (i.e., a solo, a pause, an instrumental/vocal effect, etc.)
- Vocal harmonies are used more in a chorus than in a verse, as a way of building energy.
- A song represents a complete musical journey.
Some of those characteristics are obvious and easy to determine if they’re present. For example, a chorus melody is either higher than the verse, or it isn’t. But other qualities are more of a judgement call. It’s hard to know if a song is truly representing a “complete musical journey”, for instance. But it’s important, and involves creating a lyric that feels complete, chords that have a goal, and leaves listeners wanting to come back to experience it all again.
That list shouldn’t be used as a compositional tool. In other words, while these qualities commonly exist in most songs, you can run into all sorts of trouble by “fixing” songs that don’t need to be fixed. As an example, America’s hit, “A Horse With No Name”, uses a melody almost completely devoid of interesting contour, uses only 2 chords, and uses those chords in the verse, chorus and bridge. But it was a hit, and a good one at that.
So there are times when you’ll write a song that really works well, for no good reason that you can identify. And it’s best not to tamper with that.
But if you find that your last few songs are really missing something, it might do to check that list and see how many of the 10 characteristics are missing.
Test your analytical skills. How many of the ten characteristics can you identify in the following hit songs:
- She Loves You (The Beatles)
- Honky Tonk Women (The Rolling Stones)
- Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen)
- What’s Love Got to Do With It (Tina Turner)
- Disturbia (Rihanna)
- Set Fire to the Rain (Adele)
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