Have you ever noticed that some composers of music are able to churn out hit after hit? Back in the 1980s, Stock Aitken and Waterman became known as The Hit Factory. It was no coincidence that practically everything they came up with was a massive and memorable smash hit. Believe it or not, there is a formula for writing a hit song. This is the second of a three part series of blogs designed to help new song writers to construct a song which people will love to listen to. I hasten to add, I am not a song writer myself but since researching this series, I’m tempted to have a go at it! In blog no1, we talked about the importance of an explosive title and the structure of lyrics.
- A musical hook is the part of a song that catches the listener’s attention. Just like an angler uses a hook to catch a fish: so you need an audio hook to captivate your audience. Your hook could be an instantly recognisable guitar riff, a hypnotic rhythm or an irresistible line of melody. This is undoubtedly the most important part of the song. Without a hook – you might as well forget it.
It’s the hook that people hum in the shower, while stuck in a traffic jam or the part they sing when telling a friend about this great new song they’ve heard.
The hook is repeated throughout the song; hence it is often a part of the chorus. Let’s think about some examples of great hooks:-
- Pharrell Williams’ Happy. You just can’t help singing “Cos I’m Happy” can you?
- Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I challenge you to hear him sing those two words and not continue…bah bah bah
- Try listening to Abba’s Dancing Queen without joining in the chorus. You just can’t!
- If Bon Jovi comes on the radio, I guarantee you will be with the rest of us singing….”oh oh livin on a prayer”!
These are just four examples. Try playing some of your favourite songs and then identify the hook. If the song has been a commercial success, there will definitely be a hook jumping out of the song to grab your attention.
- Keep your hook short and simple. That way it will be memorable ear worm. Think of “Woo Hoo” in Blur’s Song 2 or “Why don’t you come on over Valerie” by The Zutons / Amy Winehouse.
- As I mentioned before, a guitar riff is a common hook. Take The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction or Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. See what I mean?
- Here’s an idea. Imagine you are making up a song to appeal to a five year old. You would make it really simple wouldn’t you? Well basically, you need to keep that five year old in mind when creating a hook for your song.
It’s important that your hook is first heard quite near to the beginning of your song. Think about it in terms of an advert. The purpose of a TV ad or radio jingle is to sell you a product or an idea within less than half a minute.
- You can have the nattiest title ever and a great story told in the most descriptive and original lyrics but the truth is a fabulous melody is what will entice people to listen to your words. If we like a tune, we’ll pay attention to the song’s message and that’s a fact.
- A successful songwriter told me that the music of the verse should be no more than 25 seconds long.
- Remember to make your melody easy to sing. The range of most vocalists is an octave and a third. For example, middle C to the E in the octave above it. If you make your range too wide, you will struggle to find a vocalist who can sing it. Of course, if you only intend to sing the song yourself, you’ll just create the song to fit your vocal own capability.
- Maybe you write a melody first or perhaps you compose a tune to fit the lyrics you have already written. There is no right or wrong way
- Notice that the notes in most successful songs start lower in the verses and go up in the chorus.
- Make sure that your melody fits the mood of your lyrics. This is easier if you are the sole composer: it’s likely to be natural for your music and words to blend well but you’ll need to be more aware of this if you are collaborating with another writer.
I think all the successful songwriters I have listened to or read about want to impress on novice composers the importance of collaboration. Look at the writing credits of any number of hit songs and it’s likely that most of them will have two or more names sited as writers.
Top songwriters agree that when they sit down to write with someone else, the creative juices really start to flow and that they find themselves open to new ideas which they wouldn’t have come up with on their own.
- I said in part 1 of Tips for Writing a Hit Song that we would return to the subject of the bridge. Whilst there might be any number of verses and choruses in a song (although usually just two or three of each) there is only ever one bridge. You will usually hear it after two verses and two choruses and before the final chorus. It’s the part of the song that comes as a surprise. It keeps the listener interested and acts as a kind of final punch before the song winds down. The melody of the bridge can go up or down but in a power ballad, it works better by going up a notch. Once again, why not listen to some of your favourite songs to better see how a bridge works in a song.
Subjects for songs
- Love and broken hearts have always been popular subjects for songs and will continue to be so until the end of time. However once in a while, it’s refreshing to hear a song about something totally different or at least to hear about a different kind of love. One songwriter I read about says that when she needs inspiration, she goes out of the house and takes a different route to her normal one, visits unfamiliar shops, listens to different people talking. Something that she hears or sees will give her a quirky title to work with or an amusing line that she can build a song around. Rhythms that she hears while she’s out and about can inspire a new melody. Inspiration is all around us.
Listen to some of the tracks by The Divine Comedy or The Beautiful South to see how they have created unforgettable songs from unusual subjects.
- Why not change your radio station sometimes? Listen to different kinds of music. The lines between the genres have never been more blurred than they are today. There are some great examples of Hip Hop blended with Country. Jazz fused with Rock and so on. Find yourself loving styles of music you never considered before and discover how you can make your very own niche out of them.
Open your mind to possibilities and be daring but always remembering there is a formula for making a hit song!