How to Write a Hit Song


This blog post is a sample chapter from the new Berklee Music "Songwriting Handbook", which is free to download here.

Berklee Music's summer semester starts June 25th, and features several online classes on songwriting, music production, music business and more. 

In this guest post, Professor Jimmy Kachulis goes over the anatomy of writing a hit song. Enjoy!

How to Write a Hit Song

From the Online Course Songwriting: Writing Hit Songs

How do they do it? Why does a Beatles or a Michael Jackson song capture a listener’s attention the way they do? What is their secret, what’s the formula? If all of us songwriters had the answers to these questions, we would all be a lot richer.

While there’s no real “formula” to crafting a potential hit, there are methodologies to it. As anyone who has spent time listening to the radio can tell hit songs come in a few well- defined forms. This is no accident. These writers, producers and singers on the radio all know how to put together a song that will probably be a smash. So how do you think the pros do it? They listen to hits of the past and they use them as resources for their ideas. That’s one of the less well-kept secrets of pop songwriting. The way they make it their own is by using some of the skills I’ll mention below to make variations.

The structure of a song will determine what kind of effect it will have on the listener, whether it will be a hit or not. One of the most common and possibly the most effective forms of a hit to write is the verse/chorus. This song form goes hand in hand with the dynamics of the audience:
  • The audience usually listens to the story the verses are telling
  • And then the chorus will come around, summarizing the story as the audience sings along

Lyrically speaking, the chorus is going to summarize the main idea of the lyric and is going to be the emotional high point – the highest intensity section – of your song. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to include song title in there too. You want people to know what your song is called, right? Now how do you want the music to feel? Want something happy and upbeat? Make your chorus major key with a high tempo and maybe use eighth notes. Want something a bit funkier and maybe a bit more intimate? Slow the tempo down and use a mixolydian mode instead. 

(Figure 1: The seven standard types of choruses) 

Once the general feel of the chorus in place, we can start to think about emphasis. If you’re featuring your title in the chorus then the cadence is going to be your friend. By having the title “straddle” the cadence – starting at the beginning and then ending on the I chord – you’re guaranteed to have it planted in the listener’s head. Let’s not forget the melodic tools we still have at our disposal. Long notes will make any lyric, especially the title, far more dramatic. Ending on the downbeat, on the first beat of the measure, is a subtle but very common way to bring out the title too. What do “Message in a Bottle,” “No Woman No Cry” and “Born in the USA” all have in common? They were all massive hits and they all used these melodic tools I just mentioned. So how many ways can we use these tools? Well, there are seven standard types of choruses – choruses that state the title at one point or another. You can use all of the tools in different ways with each type of chorus. So you do the math.


So the chorus alone could have whole lessons written about it. But it’s not the only part of the songs. Any hit needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and the section that is going to make up most of those parts are the verses. As the verse is a supporting idea, many successful tracks will have verses that remain melodically, harmonically, and lyrically static. This ensures that your verses not pull the power away from other sections. For example, the same way that we use cadences to ramp up the chorus, we shouldn’t be using cadences in the verses. Instead, you could resolve to have your verses end on chords that aren’t the tonic.

I mentioned before that you’re going to be telling the story in the verses. If you want to build a conversational vibe in the verses, make use of short notes, a limited pitch range, and having the melody in the low to middle register. All of this doesn’t mean that the lyrics have to be boring. The audience is going to be listening during the verses. That means that the verses can make be the perfect time to bring in some complex, sophisticated melodic ideas.

But in the verse/chorus form we need two more sections to act as connective tissue for the verses and the chorus, the bridge and the prechorus. These sections function in similar ways: they connect and contrast with the material that comes before and after and they both build intensity into the next section.

Lyrically speaking, our bridge will contrast in content with the verse and the chorus. This can be as simple as changing the tense, by generalizing if the lyrics prior were specific, or by focusing on a new emotion. Musically speaking, you can make the bridge “move” with a different chord progression then the verses or chorus (and again, avoiding a cadence) or by having the bridge modulate away and back to the key of the song. Making the bridge a bar longer or shorter than the other sections is a great way of building tension.

The prechorus will also contrast with the chorus and verse melodically, harmonically, and formally. However, a prechorus will also break down the intensity at the beginning of the section only to ratchet it back up toward the end into the coming chorus. Slowing things down, lower notes and longer phrases will break the intensity down. To build the prechorus back up near the end, an ascending melodic shape and losing some of the space between the words will get the audience ready for the chorus.

Within a single type of song form, the verse/chorus, there are endless possibilities and countless variations to be made. But there are other forms and variations to explore. As you continue to hone your craft and create new material with some of the tools I’ve shared here, you might just come up with a smash hit or your own. When that happens would you mind crediting me as a co-writer?

Jimmy Kachulis is the author of Songwriting: Writing Hit Songs, Songwriting: Harmony, and Songwriting: Melody for Berkleemusic.com. Jimmy has helped thousands of songwriters develop and maximize their skills as a professor of songwriting and lyric writing at Berklee.





Download the full "Songwriting Handbook" from Berklee Music here.

For more information about Berklee Music's online courses, visit: www.berkleemusic.com

Posted by Dave Cool on 06/18/2012 | 14 comments

Comments

Wilton Said...
Posted by Wilton Said... on Jun 18 2012 6:23 PM
I think it should be called "How to write a song that has a better chance of corporate radio (after several trial runs with a selected audience) choosing it for their broadcast and playlist (after possibly receiving a little gift from the record company)". :)
Deuce
Posted by Deuce on Jun 19 2012 2:26 AM
This is good & somewhat helpful, but a little too clinical. The true hit songs that have lasting power, come from the soul which extends to the listeners soul...
Revenant
Posted by Revenant on Jun 19 2012 3:10 AM
Songwriting is a craft. Like all good craft people, the only way to become good at the craft of songwriting is through study and practice. In essence, song CRAFTERS such as Smokey Robinson, Harry Chapin, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Dianne Warren and the list goes on and on, train their brains to write songs that will appeal to a broad audience. Does that mean that they are corporate sell-outs? Yes and No. Yes, in that corporate entities tend to have the wherewithal and knowledge to promote music and get it in front of that broad audience. No, in that there are two kinds of music: Classic and Disposable. Songcrafters tend to write the former. Songwriters who tend to disdain the process involved in learning the craft of songwriting, in favor of "keeping it real by writing from the heart" tend to write the more disposable, dated songs. It's not so much that THEIR songs are bad as they aren't good. Take, for example, the universal song topic of love. Bus Stop by the Hollies is pretty dated. Something by George Harrison is timeless. Both are not bad songs but only Something has the elements that make it a good song, in fact a GREAT song.
Adam B Harris
Posted by Adam B Harris on Jun 19 2012 3:15 AM
If you want to download the whole thing, you will need the latest version of Adobe Reader otherwise pages come up as errors.
MeatMonsterkills
Posted by MeatMonsterkills on Jun 19 2012 7:37 AM
[quote="wiltonsaid"]I think it should be called "How to write a song that has a better chance of corporate radio (after several trial runs with a selected audience) choosing it for their broadcast and playlist (after possibly receiving a little gift from the record company)". :)[/quote]:laugh::agree:
LKR Music
Posted by LKR Music on Jun 19 2012 2:46 PM
[quote="wwwdeuceroxcom"]This is good & somewhat helpful, but a little too clinical. The true hit songs that have lasting power, come from the soul which extends to the listeners soul...[/quote] Some do that is for sure, but also once a band has it's own voice and can communicate with that voice to it's audience then anything goes. You cannot tell me that "Yellow Submarine" came from the soul.
The Goshen Theater
Posted by The Goshen Theater on Jun 19 2012 6:16 PM
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!! YES! [quote="LKRMusic"] [quote="wwwdeuceroxcom"]This is good & somewhat helpful, but a little too clinical. The true hit songs that have lasting power, come from the soul which extends to the listeners soul...[/quote] Some do that is for sure, but also once a band has it's own voice and can communicate with that voice to it's audience then anything goes. You cannot tell me that "Yellow Submarine" came from the soul.[/quote]
Rezlow
Posted by Rezlow on Jun 19 2012 9:44 PM
[quote="LKRMusic"] [quote="wwwdeuceroxcom"]This is good & somewhat helpful, but a little too clinical. The true hit songs that have lasting power, come from the soul which extends to the listeners soul...[/quote] Some do that is for sure, but also once a band has it's own voice and can communicate with that voice to it's audience then anything goes. You cannot tell me that "Yellow Submarine" came from the soul.[/quote] Which is partly why it's an annoying song ;) I think Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen was written after they read this type of article too hehe:D
Dave Cool
Posted by Dave Cool on Jun 20 2012 4:29 PM
Well, I figured this might spark a good conversation, glad it did! Thanks for your comments everyone! Cheers, Dave
Deuce
Posted by Deuce on Jun 21 2012 1:42 AM
yes exactly! yellow submarine is an annoying song, and it was written for a purpose: children. a formula song. while were using the beatles as an example, some of their worst written songs (but best selling), were formula songs designed for maximum sales. once the beatles stopped writing "made to order" songs, their best stuff came out, & of'course you could say drugs played a part in it, but they still had an unbelievable writing talent regardless. lennon & mcCartney had the ability to write hits songs made to order & also music coming out from within their soul extending to the masses probably never to be repeated again. so i'll take "strawberry fields forever"(written from the heart with lasting power) over "yellow submarine" (written for children & annoying after awhile) anyday.
Revenant
Posted by Revenant on Jun 21 2012 2:51 AM
"Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real and nothing to get hung about" is more about Lennon looking for a good 'feel' than anything especially heartfelt. Strawberry Fields was one of those formula songs you mentioned, where Paul had taken charge of things and decided that the Beatles should do an avant garde film. He came up with the basic idea for The Magical Mystery Tour & wrote the title song and told John and George they needed to make a contribution or two. John was strung out on smack at the time and basically said "Whatever". One of the things that made the Beatles what they were was the amazing talent they had to write songs under tight deadlines, basically on demand. An example of that was their first movie "Help". Epstein had signed them to a multi-picture deal. The American producers had no idea at the time who they even were, Beatlemania not being at it's peak yet. Their reasoning was that even if the films were flops, if they had the soundtrack rights, they'd make money. Just before they began shooting, they finally came up with the name and told Lennon and McCartney it would be nice to have a theme song. That was over dinner. The next morning, Lennon-McCartney presented them with the song they'd spent the night working on! Those same film makers wouldn't accept Magical Mystery Tour so to fulfill their contractual agreement, the Beatles wrote the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine. They didn't voice their characters in the animated movie and had nothing to do with the script at all. It was just "We need you to write the title track and X other tracks". These guys were songwriting machines! John was famous for his swimming pool song quote when asked about a song that the interviewer thought was near and dear to his heart. "Naah, it was just a swimming pool song. Takes fifteen minutes to write and the royalties pay for your swimming pool!"
Deuce
Posted by Deuce on Jun 25 2012 3:42 PM
When I say from the heart, I don't just mean words..I also mean melody, chord structures etc. Strawberry field was close to his heart, Childhood memories etc. Paul may have took charge, but john brought the melody in to begin with. We all can have a different perception of a song, which makes it universal which is one of the beauties of songs.
Revenant
Posted by Revenant on Jun 25 2012 11:25 PM
Right On!:agree:
Adrian Reece
Posted by Adrian Reece on Sep 16 2014 1:03 PM
Thank You 4 Helping Me Re wrap with with paper & a Bow that maybe someday someone will notice my "GIFT" of MUSIC!