By Bryan DeWeese
What is a “hit” Song? That’s easy right? A hit song is the one everybody loves and the radio plays without ceasing. A hit song sells a lot of records and brings a lot of fame to the performer that records it, right? Those are definitely things that happen with a hit song, but how do we know if a song is going to be a hit? What exactly makes a song a hit, is the question songwriters have asked since the beginning of the craft, and unfortunately there are no easy answers.
Many people agree that a hit song is the song people hear and than later, find
themselves, singing in the shower or humming to themselves. It might be as simple as,
every time the song comes on the radio we sing along, I know I’m guilty of that. So what
causes us to remember or sing or hum along? Could it be the melody? If you categorize
the billboard top ten, hits over the last thirty years, you would find the large majority of them
have simple, very catchy melodies. Melody is definitely part of the puzzle but not all of it.
How many pop songs have you heard that are “instrumental only” yet you found yourself
humming them in the shower? Okay, maybe a few, but the greater majority of them have
another element, lyrics! Yes, lyrics! Regardless what people say, they listen to lyrics.
Good lyrics delivered by a talented singer and sung around a catchy melody could be a
recipe for success right there. Lyrics have many variations and they usually relate in some
way to the rest of the song. Lyrics may rhyme but they don’t have to. The one important
thing about lyrics is a thing called meter. Meter refers to even rhythms, the same number
of syllables in each matching line or pattern. When lyrics have a specific meter, verses and
choruses can be identified, which also allows the song to flow more smoothly. A more
complex study of song meter can be found in many books on lyric writing but suffice it to
say, meter is important to understand for a quality song. Song structure is also very
important. Although you will find many songs deviate from the norm, there are some basic
structure-ideas that can be observed in a large majority of hit songs. The most basic
elements are verses and choruses. If you were to compare a song to a novel, verses are
typically where the body of the story occurs, like the chapters. A chorus is more like a
synopsis or a summing up of each chapter or verse. A chorus could also serve the
purpose of the climax or resolution in a book which means it might be the last thing that
people remember. Sometimes a chorus simply says the same thing over and over and
sometimes it changes, but one very important thing is that it has something the listener
will remember in it. This “something they will remember”, is sometimes called a “hook”
in music circles. A hook is a musical tool that catches the listener, just like a hook on
the end of a fishing pole. With the hook in place the song can than “reel” the listener in.
A hook is very important and I dare say that all hit songs have a hook in them. It could be
a specific lyric, or melody that is typically what you find yourself singing. The hook is usually
repeated. That is one reason why it is often found in the chorus. Many people have asked
me, “how do you find or create a hook?” Unfortunately there is no science to this. Many
times if you find something that conveys an emotion or an attitude that others can relate
with, that becomes a hook. Sometimes it is just a catchy rhyme that is entertaining or clearly
states the point of the song. Some times the lyric line that is the hook even gets used as the
title of the song. Many times after a couple of verses and a chorus or two, the song is
broken up by another element known as the bridge. Bridges in songs are similar to bridges
in everyday life, they connect the song together and help you get from point A to point B.
Differently from real life, in songs the bridge also acts to break up the song or add some variety.
The variety might be in the form of a detour from the norm, like a melody change or a lyrical
change or any number of other twists.
Okay, we’ve got verses, choruses, bridges, hooks and even meter and melody in our song,
does that mean it is going to be a hit? This is very possibly. There are many other factors
that determine what songs become hits. Some of these are not in the control of the songwriter.
Sometimes the difference between the same song being a hit or not, lies in the artist who sings
the song. A lot of songs have a history of being recorded by many artists before one of them
becomes a “hit.” Sometimes a specific arranger will make the right adjustment to the song
and that makes it popular. A producer might be called in and he or she makes a creative
suggestion that pushes the song out of the realm of normal and into the realm of “hit.”
Promotion can also have an effect on a song becoming a hit. A&R; representatives have
been quoted over and over again saying things like “..I don’t know what I am looking for,
but I will know it when I find it!” This is an attitude that as songwriters, we can apply to our
craft. If we stay open to possibilities and work to find them, we probably will.
Here are some suggestion to try and overcome the many factors we, as songwriters, have
no control over. Write from your environment. Each songwriter is different and has unique
experiences. Write about what you experience or you see others experience and it might just
end up being a hit song. More people may relate with that experience than you thought! Some
of the best songs have come out of “something somebody said” which caught on as a catch
phrase or saying and than someone wrote a song about it. One way to attempt to overcome
promotion, or lack of it, is to find ways to expose others to your songs. Play them for friends,
relatives, and neighbors, even co-workers. You never know, one of those might know
somebody who they can play your song for, that might get your song even more exposure.
One really great way to get songs into the right hands is called “compilation CD’s. Find one or
more companies that do compilation CD’s and get your songs on there. How this works is that
the CD manufacturer or production house will offer to put your songs on a CD they are producing.
They ask that participants split up the cost of the CD but in exchange, they will give you copies
of the CD for your own purposes but they also typically have a list of record companies and
radio stations that also receive copies of these compilations. These are better than unsolicited
tapes that you might send out, since the company providing the service has a relationship with
the companies they send too. Word of caution here, as with anything, there are companies
out there which are just after your money. If they are asking for money in the thousands of
dollars and offer promises of thousands of mailings, this might be a scam! A good company
will usually want to hear your song before accepting it on their compilation. They should also
offer references upon request. Some people are very critical of this very useful tool for song
promotion. A few are scam artists, but in general, this is a great way to get your song on CD’s
and in the hands of people who can use it! Choose wisely, find out all you can about the
companies you invest your money and your songs in!
It all comes down to this, “be creative!” Writing songs is an art not a science. Writing music can
be fun and profitable. The best way I know to write a hit song, is to write a lot of them. The law of
averages say’s that the more songs you write, the larger your chances of writing that special hit
song! So write, write, write, and Good luck!
(c) Copyright 1998 Bryan DeWeese