It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist, band, songwriter, engineer, producer or label exec, I’m sure you’re all too aware that crafting a hit song isn’t easy. Most people in the music business struggle their entire careers to be a part of just one, while others will do anything they can to get a sweet taste of that magic another time. While there isn’t an exact formula for a hit, there are a number of common characteristics between them that you’ll find may help you in creating one. The problem is, those characteristics keep changing and they sure are different these days from what they once were.
As It Once Was
Before the last 4 or 5 years or so, hit songs had a set of common characteristics that were in place for about 50 years. These were:
- Most hits were 3 minutes or more. In fact, the average for a long time was around 3:47 in length, but ideally it was around 3 minute mark.
- Most hits had a short intro. The average intro was about 7 1/2 seconds, although it could easily be double that. The reason was that DJs on the radio needed some space to talk over the music until the vocal came in, so it served a dual purpose as a setup for the song and for the DJ as well.
- Most hits limited the number of arrangement elements that occured at the same time. Most had only three or four, and rarely even five arrangement elements that played simultaneously, but no more.
- The arrangement of most hits developed over the course of the song. Usually it reached a peak at either the bridge or the last chorus.
- Most hits used the arrangement to keep your interest. There was always a new element entering or exiting to hold your attention.
- Most hits had either a bridge or arranged a repeating song section to act like a bridge. The latter is an arrangement trick to keep the interest high and the song flowing.
- Virtually all hits were dynamic, with a lot of tension and release, which means a hit changed in intensity as the song played on. This was usually accomplished through the addition or subtraction of instrument or vocal tracks, but could also occur because of good old-fashioned dynamic playing if real musicians were used.
- There were exceptions to all of these rules. It was rare to find a song that followed these traits exactly. Often what makes a song a hit in the first place is the ability to twist one of these traits into something new.
Hit Characteristics In 2022
A lot has changed in the past few years though, but let’s start off with the characteristics that have remained the same.
- Most hits still use a limited the number of arrangement elements that occur at the same time. If anything, there are fewer arrangement elements that play simultaneously, like 3 instead of 5.
- The arrangement of most hits still develops over the course of the song. Songs build towards a climix.
- Most hits still use the arrangement to keep your interest. There’s always a new element entering or exiting to hold your attention, sometimes subliminally.
- Virtually all hits change in intensity throughout the song. Just like before, this is usually accomplished through the addition or subtraction of instrument or vocal tracks.
Regardless how hit songs evolve in the future, the above points will probably remain in place. Here are the things that have changed to become today’s common characteristics.
- Most songs are under 3 minutes. There are several reasons for this. One is that there are fewer song sections needed (covered below), but a big one is that a long song and short song pay the same amount when it comes to streaming royalties. With a short song you might have someone play it multiple times, which is less likely if the song was longer.
- Many songs start right on the chorus. Yes, it’s because we all have shorter attention spans, but we also want to grab the listener’s attention right away so they keep the song playing. Each streaming platform has a different length of time to register as a play, but if you can keep them through a 10 second chorus you probably have them long enough to count.
- Most songs don’t have intros or long fade outs. These were built-in exclusively for radio’s benefit, but since radio doesn’t mean much to today’s artist, it’s better for streaming to just get right to the point.
- Most songs don’t have a bridge. The bridge used to be the peak of the song. Today we use different song structure elements to perform the same function, like a breakdown or an enhanced chorus.
- You have to look hard to find a solo in a song today. It’s just not on the radar of today’s songwriter. Again, if we can make the song shorter there’s a greater chance that the listener will listen again.
- Many huge hits today have a minimal arrangement. About the most stripped down I’ve heard is Adele’s “Easy On Me,” which would have been thought of as a demo in recent years. Today it’s really common for less (usually a lot less) to be more.
For better or worse, songwriting and production carries a different mindset today and it’s more about minimalism. That said, that’s not passing judgement either way. It’s hard to have a hit regardless of the era. And it should be said that longer more traditional song forms are slowly creeping back into the mainstream. Either way, it’s helpful to be aware of the common characteristics from both eras.
Remember that it’s useful to listen to all hit songs to see what you can learn from them, even if you don’t like the artist or the music genre. All hits catch lightning in a bottle and it’s useful for your own productions to try to break down how and why that happened.
You can read more from The Deconstructed Hits series and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.