How To Write A Pop Hit
Three chart-topping songwriters explain what it takes to break into the big time.
The idea of a commercial hit might not appeal to everyone. You may consider your tastes too sophisticated for such a thing and would rather dig for Flying Lotus vinyl than search “Katy Perry” on Spotify. But whatever your views on credibility, crafting a song that resonates with millions of people takes considerable talent. There will always be the more saccharine chart tracks, but at the time of writing, the UK top 10 features songs from the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, The Weeknd and Mr Mark Ronson. Bubble-gum pop this is not.
But how do songwriters achieve mainstream success? Luck? Science? By liberally borrowing from Mr Marvin Gaye? (Sorry.) We asked Messrs Jim Duguid, Ralph Murphy and Wayne Wilkins – hit writers for everyone from Beyoncé to Mr Paolo Nutini – for the inside track on mainstream music.
Although ideas can come from anywhere, a major source of inspiration is other people. “A lot of the time the inspiration comes from walking around on the street, or talking to someone,” says Mr Wilkins – a writer on Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams”. Mr Murphy, who has crafted hits for Ms Jeannie C Riley and Sir Cliff Richard, prefers bars. “There are only two reasons to go to a bar – either to celebrate or commiserate. What you have to do is keep your ears open,” he says. “People who want to speak sit in the corner. Sooner or later someone will tell you their story and there will be a great phrase that they use.”
TITLES ARE VITAL
“A golden rule is having a title. You have a story and a blank piece of paper – where did you start?” says Mr Duguid – who has written top 10s for Messrs Nutini and Alex Clare. And, as Mr Murphy explains, that title must resonate. “Every single No.1 in the US last year got to the first use of title phrase within 60 seconds. It shouldn’t be abstract. We live in an internet world, and the first thing you do when you hear a song is google it. If you don’t find it, you feel rejected.”
Although you may think shutting yourself in your room is the way to work, writing with others can produce the best results. “I think 100% of No.1 records were made with the artist involved in the writing,” says Mr Murphy. Mr Duguid’s career corroborates this. “You end up talking about the most personal stuff with someone you’ve just met,” he says. “The song ‘Too Close’ [which currently has more than 57 million spins on YouTube] was written very quickly after a conversation with Mr Clare about a girlfriend. He really wanted to break it off but he loved her. I said, ‘you’re just too close’.”
Practice makes perfect
“Hits aren’t written, they’re rewritten,” says Mr Murphy, a man with more than 40 years’ experience in the business. “Generally I do 100 a year. I demo 40 and average about eight to 10 records and get a hit every third year. Most people say, ‘anyone can write a song.’ Yeah – well, I can put a Band-Aid on my kid’s finger so I’m a doctor.” Indeed, we all may have written a couple of verses at some point in our lives – but it doesn’t make you a pro. “Finding the magic comes from writing lots and lots of songs,” says Mr Wilkins.
Make a connection
“A song is not a song, it’s a single linear conversation between two people. The only track that went to No.1 last year that didn’t use the pronoun ‘you’ before the bridge was ‘Shake It Off’ by Taylor Swift,” says Mr Murphy.” This is something explored in his book Murphy’s Laws of Song Writing. “Every song you’ve ever made love to, danced to, or drove a car to is all about you. Pure personal catharsis is the last thing you want to hear.” Mr Wilkins agrees, “You don’t want a pop star saying ‘look at me, look at how miserable my life is.’ You want to connect with everybody.” And to do this, the lyrics ought to be as simple as possible. “It’s like call and response”, says Mr Murphy. “If you put in hey heys, nah nahs and woah woahs – people sing along, and you own them. One-syllable words are king.”
Don’t bore us, get to the chorus
“Don’t make your verses too long. The famous saying ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ is key,” says Mr Duguid. “On the radio – the two-minute wall is where the listener gets bored, from two to two minutes 45,” says Mr Murphy. “Taylor Swift is amazing at changing it up. Put a bridge in there with a rap, and a key change or an instrumental. There were only two records of more than four minutes last year that went to No.1: Eminem’s ‘The Monster’ and John Legend’s ‘All of Me’.” It’s clear that brevity is the way to a listener’s heart. “The intro was designed for radio,” confirms Mr Murphy. “We now live in a digital world – in pop and dance it isn’t necessary.”
Follow the structure
Hits tend to share similar structures, so follow them. “Structurally in pop we’re looking at verse, prechorus, chorus, verse, prechorus, chorus. With either a rap, a bridge or a middle eight. Then prechorus, chorus – out. But the variables within that are huge. ‘Call Me Maybe’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ are all the same in terms of structure,” says Mr Murphy. “You need to tell me a full story: someone who never existed, in a place that never was, doing something that never happened – and make me believe it. Explain every single word that you’re putting in there. When you’ve invited me in and resolved it in 60 seconds – give me more information that resonates. Then at two minutes you better slam me to somewhere else. At the end: ‘dead ending’ as opposed to fading out makes the listener feel cheated so they listen again. After seven listens – I have you.”
Make it familiar
Although there may be pop songs that shake up the formula, humans – the creatures of habit that we are – seek the familiar. “There are certain chord sequences that are always used,” says Mr Wilkins. “There are a couple of YouTube videos demonstrating this. Nostalgia is key, as well. If you sample an old record it takes people back to a special place. Look at Adele, or Amy Winehouse – your grandparents and parents have played music like that and it’s ingrained in culture.”
KNOW THE SOURCE MATERIAL
To know what works, you need to respect what’s already out there. “I studied 50 songs over Christmas. I don’t like 95% of them, but 20 million people did. So who’s right?” says Mr Murphy. “As a commercial songwriter you think about what’s getting played on radios. You have to look at the competition,” agrees Mr Duguid.
However skilled you are, there will always be an element of luck to writing a hit. As Mr Duguid says, “The rule is: there are no rules. I wrote ‘Last Request’ with Paolo but I just wasn’t sure about. It became a top five hit.” When Mr Wilkins wrote Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams”, he found a “familiar” sound entirely by accident. “We did that song in about 25 minutes. I hit on a bassline and thought it sounded like Michael Jackson perhaps. We thought we couldn’t use it, but realised it wasn’t actually like anything out there. That was a nice bit of luck.”
Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni