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Anatomy Of A Hit Song

April 29, 2010

Ever wonder what makes a hit song a “hit?” Why does one song skyrocket while another one falters? What really constitutes a “HIT?”

Years ago, if you even can remember watching American Bandstand on TV, there was a segment where they featured a new song and the audience would then rate how they liked it. When Dick Clark asked the audience why they liked that particular song, the answer more often than not was “It has a good beat and you can dance to it.” So, does a good, danceable beat make a hit song? Some would argue that there’s a formula to a hit. The song should be under four minutes in length, the intro is about 20 seconds long, the chorus happens in 35’ish seconds and then into the second verse by one minute. That doesn’t mean that all songs are written with those time figures in mind, but I will admit that some have been consciously written that way…and some of them have even turned out to be hits.

However, there’s more to a hit then just a timetable. There’s feeling involved, emotion, lyrical content, musicality, and yes, a “hook.” A song needs to strike a chord with the listener in one way or another, to make that person want to hear it over and over again. Not only that, in Christian music, there needs to be a message, something that speaks to the listener.

Kris Love, from Love 89, WYLV in Knoxville, TN, has this to say about a hit song:

“A hit song is what happens when a great hook and an easily relatable life-impacting message come together. Looking at all the songs that’ve been hits for us, yes the hook was important but the thing that gave them real staying power was the song’s ability to speak some truth or encouragement directly into our listener’s life.”

For Christian listeners, the message is an important one. When we listen to Christian music we do so because not only do we want to hear good music, but we want to hear a message that aligns with our beliefs and one that lifts us up and gives us encouragement. The song should be a relatable one.

“Assuming the song is well written and well produced with a great arrangement, one of the first things I look for is the message of the song. It has to be relatable. The more relatable a song is, the better chance it will connect with the listener, making it more memorable.” – Joe Buchanan / New Life Media, IL (WBGL, WCIC, WIBI)

However, you can have the greatest lyrics in the world, but if the music isn’t there, there’s not much of a chance the song’s going to be a good one. As Joe states above, the song should also be well produced, as well as well written and the musicality should be there as well.

There’s also something else that hit songs have – the “it” factor. No one really knows what the “it” is, it’s just there. Hit songs have just a little extra something that makes the listener connect to it that some other songs don’t have. It isn’t really known why this is, “it” just happens. It’s a piece of music magic that again brings emotion into the song that makes it connect with its audience: makes it “relatable.” However, “it’s” the thing that makes the listener remember the song and sing it over and over and can’t get the hook (usually the chorus) out of their head. Jeff Cruz from WPOZ in Orlando, FL, has this to say about a “hooky” song:

“…a lyrically relevant, musically interesting (but not radical), catchy song you can sing along to, is a recipe for a hit in Christian radio!”

So basically, a hit song is a song that “has a good beat and you can dance to it,” or rather, sing along to it…that’s “relatable, and hooky.”

However, there’s one thing I didn’t mention above. Sometimes a hit song becomes a hit because the timing is right. It’s the right song, at the right place, in the right time. I jokingly say the stars and the planets have to align just right for a song to be a hit. Believe me, record labels go through a lot of data, testing, etc. to make sure the songs they are releasing are “hits,” but it’s ultimately up to the listener to decide if a song reaches “hit” status. Listeners are the ones who connect with the song, who call into their stations to request the song, or who tell the stations if they don’t like the song. The stations listen and they play songs based on what listener response is.

So, what makes a song a “hit?” I’m still trying to figure that one out. There are obviously some things that help a song to become a hit, but when I definitely have the answer I’ll be sure to let you know.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 9:29 AM

    Ok, I agree that a hook and a relatable message matter. But so does the singer. Specifically, the singer’s story.

    Radio stations and audiences tend to attach to artists with a story – preferably a rags to riches type of tale. Recognize any of these?

    1) The lead singer is dyslexic and the band was told repeatedly they’d never make it but then…

    2) His wife died after a short time of marriage but he praised God through his pain.

    3) Guy whose wife died finds new love!

    4) Guy whose wife died has first baby with new bride!

    5) Blind

    6) Intern at music company gets signed to record deal

    7) Little indie band gets song recorded by Amy Grant

    Hits often come from people with a story. The PERSON, not just the song, is a compelling protagonist, easily described and remembered by the DJ and audience.

    • May 19, 2010 10:39 AM

      Hey Shaun,

      I totally agree. The artist also makes a song a hit. You can’t have a hit without someone singing it…and a personal story goes a long way. There are any number of factors for a song to be a hit, and if we could capture it, bottle it and sell it, then we’d all be millionaires! 🙂

      • May 19, 2010 2:45 PM

        I have. It’s on my shelf right now. Just above the piano. I’m taking 2 tablespoons of the stuff daily. In six months to a year I’ll be ready to add some zeros to my taxable income. And I’ll have my people call your people and we’ll do some Tex-Mex.

        Thanks for this great post, Jennifer. Sorry I misattributed it to Steve on my blog. *blush*

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