Touting his supreme confidence, Ice Cube once said, “If It was all about me, I’d do a whole lot of pop records, make a whole lot of money.” For Ice Cube, and many other people who share this belief, producing a popular song is a choice. From this perspective, some musicians have decided to make pop music, while others have chosen more alternative routes.
Is Ice Cube correct? Is making a popular song simply a choice? As a songwriter, is there a formula, a series of notes, or a particular theme that we can master and then in turn produce a “hit” song? And further, does a pop song require an audience? In other words, if a pop song falls in the woods, and nobody’s around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Is it in fact still a pop song if it is not in fact popular?
To the greater and often-asked question of whether there is a clear formula or a hard science for composing pop music that could turn a song from a rough cut into a worldwide ‘hit’, for us, the answer is NO!
That is not to suggest that there aren’t similarities in song structure, theme or style that is shared between the majority of ‘hit’ songs, whether composed in 1965, 1995, or 2016. These similarities, in turn, have allowed some songs to become wildly popular while other songs receive significantly less attention.
In order to narrow the scope of this layered topic, we will be using the term ‘hit’ to describe the ‘thing/s’ that allow certain songs to move from, let’s say, the alternative, rock, rap, country, or dance charts into Billboard’s Hot 100. This is not implying that very successful, popular songs on the alternative or rap charts, for instance, are lesser “hits” than the Hot 100- it simply allows us to narrow in on a more specific question- how do ‘hits’ become ‘pop’?
IF IT SOUNDS LIKE POP, THEN IT MUST BE…
In music making, however many patterns in songwriting exist, there are far too many variables that will affect whether a song will truly become a hit, and whether that artist will be able to produce a follow up hit. We might suggest to fellow songwriters that the formula to ‘hit-making’ is to stick with the popular ballad metric – “thirty-two-bar form” or more commonly known as the AABA song structure. It has two verses (“A” sections), followed by a contrasting “B” or bridge section, leading back to another “A” section. After a slight instrumental interlude, we may be brought back for a second bridge then wrap things up nicely with the initial melody that made us fall in love with the song in the beginning.
One might also propose to stick to accessible themes: finding love, losing love, sex, addiction, loss/death, seasons/holidays, and weather.
Many musicians, of all levels of success and fame, are more than capable of producing what is undeniably a ‘pop’ sounding song. Talented musicians can not only replicate popular songs, but make great advancements to tried and true formula, creating new, exciting ‘pop’ songs in the process. Unfortunately, there are many hurdles standing between a pop song and a mass audience.
JUST BECAUSE IT POPS DOESN’T MEAN IT HITS
So if making a pop song isn’t about the song itself, then what is it about? Your gut instinct could be that the right marketing, the perfect roll-out of the song, a large infusion of capital and push from the radio stations, publicity and streaming sites in collaboration with that perfect formula-driven pop track, a song will become an instant hit. And you wouldn’t be wrong, however it’s unfortunately not always the case either.
It is important to also address any preconceptions you may have that there is a ruling body of music industry masterminds with the unbeatable power to determine the fate of a song. While the machinery of the recording industry (record labels, A&Rs, artist managers, publishers) may believe or speak with confidence that they KNOW without a doubt what song will become a smash, this is far from the truth. There’s a certain unexplained ‘luck’ involved in why some songs hit and others don’t. If the culture at the exact moment a song hits is not looking for a guitar-focused track, there is no amount of money or song structure that will convince the masses that this is the song of the summer, the next youth anthem, or the soundtrack to their breakup.
So while it’s not exactly a choice whether a musician makes a pop song or not, and even those who choose to make a pop song still face incredible obstacles, the potential is still there for those who keep Cube’s words in mind: “ya done run 100 miles, but you still got one to go.”
Every day an artist seemingly comes out of nowhere and turns the industry on its head, writes the year’s biggest track and springboards themselves into international success. Just as the process of trying to crossover into pop can be frustrating, it can also be incredibly magical and a great pop song truly has the power to change your life, and the lives of millions of followers. That could be you. Keep writing, studying culture, and enjoying the process!
Russell Sheffield is the co-founder of Trackd and a music die-hard. He’s a drummer by day and by night he manages some incredible bands. Before Trackd he had success in FinTech and design. Russ’s biggest skill is uncovering amazing talent and linking people together to get huge results.