You may have found yourself listening to a pop channel and wondered “How — or why — is that song a hit?” While I can’t address issues of taste, based on some research, I can identify some factors that have made songs appealing over the years. Here’s a semi-scientific breakdown of six ingredients that can make for a “perfect” hit song.
Ascent / Descent / Resolution / Dissonance
Your brain loves math (though you may not). It likes predictability, repetition. And while some popular songs don’t do any of these things, a truly classic song often does. The Beatles found out quickly that ascending and descending chords are appealing. Check out “Hello, Goodbye”, which uses this technique repeatedly. Same with “Lady Madonna” and “I Am the Walrus.” If you listen carefully, you’ll find lots of Beatles songs walk up and down the keys. It works because your brain can predict what the next note is going to be, and it finds that pleasing, whether you realize it or not.
Resolution is about giving your brain a tidy conclusion to a series of chords. There are certain musical phrases that “resolve” tidily. For musicians reading this article, it’s the dominant 7th chord that resolves to the root chord. For example, in the key of G, when you play a D7 chord, the resolution to that cord is the G Major. Playing a D7 in a musical phrase and going into the G Major makes your brain go “Yup, just what I expected!” Not providing this resolution can work as well, but it causes some discomfort. Whether that discomfort feels good or bad is usually a personal choice. Listen to “This Love” by Maroon 5 just after the bridge (around 2:20) or “Forget You” by CeeLo Green after that bridge (around 3:09) and you’ll feel that resolution back to the root chord – often into the chorus from a bridge.
Dissonance is discomfort. Some songs are appealing because they cause some interesting tartness by not adhering to musical expectations. A classic example is in McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” with ascent (after the second lyric, as the piano walks up) and dissonance at 52 seconds into the song after the line “…that he really doesn’t understand.” The chord struck repeatedly D(-10), or (F# A D F) is dissonant but somewhat appealing (playing F and F# together??). Another somewhat dissonant technique used by the Beatles is making all of their chords the aforementioned 7th chords without resolution. In “I Saw Her Standing There,” nearly all of the chords are 7th chords. In fact, this was such an odd choice outside of blues music that it’s been attributed to the craze that their music caused back then; most kids had no exposure to blues at that time, so it freaked them out (cue screaming girls).
A Distinctive Bass Line
Bass players are just as important as drummers for providing a percussive underpinning to a song. A great bass line that holds your attention is called a “walking bass line.” Examples include “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen, “Money” by Pink Floyd, “Fever” by Peggy Lee and “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. Listen to “Groove is in the Heart” by Dee-Lite, which took the riff from Herbie Hancock’s classic “Bring Down the Birds.” Technically, a walking bass line often plays one note per beat, often includes a flat-5th and ends on an intro note into the next chord, but you and I just like the way it carries you from chord to chord to the end of the song with sort of a swing feel.
Percussive Phrasing of Words
This is similar to certain Rap styles (e.g. Hip Hop) that percussively uses words and phrases to create clever and pleasing patterns, similar to “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith when it was covered by Run D-M-C. There’s “Bring the Noise” by Anthrax with Public Enemy, or anything the Beastie Boys ever did. Scatting (speaking nonsense sounds) has been around since Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong did it in the 1920s.
Songs That Are Social Commentary
This has been part of songwriting since forever. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” made fun of us colonists with a feather in our caps that we called “macaroni.” The 1960s made the protest song a much more a mainstream art form. Songs by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell called out what was wrong with the world. Social commentary has formed a basis for a song catalog for many rap groups, like NWA and their angry album “Straight Outta Compton.” Songs like “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar or “Power” by Public Enemy struck a chord with segments of society — and strikes a chord for many listeners.
A Dance Song with a Heavy Bassline
Disco music was spawned post-Vietnam and recession, and it wanted people to cheer up, get out and dance. With a bass line that anyone could easily dance to, it introduced everyone to 12-inch LP remixes, synthesizers, and a solid four-on-the-floor beat. Don’t let the commercialism and silliness of the disco era convince you that the music wasn’t well-constructed. Think “I Want You Back” by The Jacksons or “Super Freak” by Rick James. This age also spawned Nile Rodgers who’s been churning out funky guitar riffs for four decades since. Think of what popular dance music sounded like before disco; listen to “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and you’ll understand the impact disco has to this day. And who performed on “Get Lucky”? None other than Nile Rodgers.
Keep It Interesting (Increase Complexity, Avoid Repetition — unless, of course, that works…)
Certain songs that are relatively simple can get tedious if the tone or tempo doesn’t change. Using the Beatles as an example again, to combat boredom they would add sounds as the song progressed. Verse 1 may start out simple, but Verse 2 will add handclaps, and Verse 3 may add a cowbell. Check out “Tax Man” as an example. Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” is a beautiful piano song but as the song progresses, you’ll hear some synth added to the background to keep things interesting. Same with “No Roots” by Alice Merton gradually adding louder backing vocals. Your brain perks up because something’s changed. Repeating a word or sound more than about four times and it may be tedious. But in some cases, it may create the tension you want. Take for example, “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. In this classic, in Verse 3 he repeats “I know” twenty-two times (!). It creates stress but drives home the point that he wearies from telling people that he should just move on.
In Selena Gomez’ “Bad Liar” she wants to make it clear that he doesn’t lie well. The Presidents of the United States of America is a band that will purposely repeat lyrics or chords too many times just to create tension in the song. Check out their song “Cleveland Rocks”
The “hook” is the catchy part of a song that “hooks” the listener and makes them want to listen to it over and over. It’s often a catchy combination of melody, lyrics, and rhythm and it’s difficult to come by. Think of the intro to “Clocks” by Cold Play. Or the chorus of “Angel in the Centerfold” by J.Geils Band.
How do you come up with a hook? It’s not something you can teach. Billie Eilish’s hook in her Grammy-winning song “Bad Guy” is that little synth riff. It’s not even words! Paul McCartney famously came up with the hook (or melody in this case) for his song “Yesterday” during his sleep. The hook is often the key to a song’s success. The challenge of a hook is to keep it interesting and repeat it through the song, but not repeat it so much as to make it irritating.
So, does this mean it’s a simple formula to write a hit song? No, not at all. Plenty of songs have followed all of these guidelines and fallen flat. But they are the ingredients when mixed in the right quantities, just may yield you a Grammy.
Image: Billboard “Hot 100” logo (public domain)