What makes a song a hit?* What are the magical elements – including melody, arrangement, hook, lyrics and voice – and how do they come together to create a song that resonates with people worldwide? Sure, money and marketing can contribute to how visible a song is in the marketplace, but when the promotion cycle is over and we look back on the year’s most impactful songs (or the decade’s, or the century’s), can we identify the components of a song’s success, and can we use this information to craft the hit songs of the future?
While songwriting isn’t exactly a science, researchers are working on identifying the recurring characteristics of hit songs: The Billboard Experiment has some neat data you can play with that shows how songs charting on the Billboard Hot 100 have evolved over eight decades, using variables including song length, tempo, loudness, time signature, key signature and artist familiarity.
And just this year, researchers at North Carolina State University released a list of the top 12 most common lyric themes found in No. 1 hit songs throughout 60 years of Billboard Hot 100 chart history. These themes are largely emotional – “breakup” being the most popular – and reflect the social and political mood of each decade. Top lyric themes include:
• 1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion
• 1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded
• 1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion
• 1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism
• 2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation
NCSU researchers also found that they could predict within 73.4% accuracy whether a song had reached the Billboard Hot 100 if the song’s lyrics contained themes of loss, despair, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration or nostalgia. Dr. David Henard, who led this study, says, “There is a limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience and resonate with a large and diverse population of consumers…. Communications centered on emotional themes have mass audience appeal.” You can read the paper here.
Ultimately, I feel that the key to successful songwriting lies in finding new ways to write about universal emotional themes – striking the balance between familiarity and surprise. What are some things you can do, then, aside from getting your heart broken for the sake of art? Here are some of my favorite tips:
• Learn the songs you love inside and out – transcribe them, examine their form, try “rewriting” the melody or lyrics to a song you already know
• Collaborate with others – don’t hoard your favorite ideas, share them
• Keep a journal of your song ideas, no matter how small (I like to use voice memos on my phone!)
• Compiling a list of potential song titles to work from is a great way to clearly establish an emotional theme and lyrical hook early on in your writing process. It’s also a fun exercise to help escape writer’s block
• Get serious about critiquing and editing your work – but learn how to finish
• And simply, write as many songs as you can
Songwriter Dan Wilson (of ‘90s band Semisonic, who has gone on to write with Adele, Taylor Swift, P!nk and more) has some great Vines about his songwriting process.
And for fun, check out Brett Domino’s tutorial on hit songwriting via YouTube.
*Note: Here, a “hit song” means a song that charts on the Billboard Hot 100. Whether or not a “hit song” is a “good song” is entirely up to you!