The Secrets of a Great Pop Song

A great pop song tells a human story. It connects with universal values; values that people can understand and empathise with. It demands our attention and sticks in the memory. A pop song can make us want to sing and dance or transport us to another time and place.  But what does it take to create a hit song? And why is it that pop music can be as rich, as powerful and as affecting as any classical symphony?

Musicians have always appreciated the mechanics of popular song. The earliest pop writers of Tin Pan Alley in New York developed skills which enabled them to churn out hit songs for a burgeoning radio and record audience. Songwriters like Irvin Berlin and George Gershwin started on Tin Pan Alley, and they borrowed from jazz and European folk music to create complex, flourishing melodies.


The pop of the 30's, 40's, right up into the 60's kept finding new and increasingly creative ways of mixing diverse genres; a coming together of blues, gospel and country, which formed the building blocks of the pop music we know today. As pop has evolved, it has continued to develop new combinations, but the ingredients that go into the making of a great song work remain the same.


Pop music seduces

The best music writers and producers have mastered the art of hooking listeners. They find subtle but effective ways of seducing their audience, and the most fundamental way of doing this is with a killer tune. Most pop composers agree that when it comes to melody, simplicity is best. Pop songs have a limited range, and the majority are written within a fifth of an octave.


This has partly to do with the skill of the performer, and partly to do with the preferences of average listeners; they don't want anything too complicated. A lot of pop songs contain nursery rhyme aspects that can be quite irritating, but at the same time are so simple they can be repeated over and over again until they get stuck in our heads.


Something that is really important for a pop song is the ability to instantly grab the listener's attention. But along with an effective hook, a pop song also needs a great beginning, a middle and an end. It also has to be short. The most successful pop songs of all time have managed to tell their stories inside of what the music industry calls the 'golden three minutes.'


Life's too short

This three-minute structure originally came about because of recording limitations. The three-minute song on the 78, and later on the 45, became the way that listeners identified with the music, and it also focussed their attention. Which is why you will never hear a 15-minute guitar solo at the start of a pop record. Pop songs need to state their message quickly, preferably within the first opening seconds, or they risk losing their audience before they can really get going.


Today, the three-minute format hasn't really changed much at all. How long a song will be is one of the most important factors in the mind of a modern pop composer. And when you consider that a song generally has an intro, a couple of verses, a chorus, another verse and perhaps a bridge, more chorus and then out—it's easy to see why composers are more or less forced to cut any superfluous notes or arrangements from their songs. Or, as one executive of a leading record label once put it, “The world doesn't have time to listen to a four-minute pop song.”


A pop lyrics need to speak in a language that everyone can understand. This is not to say that it has to use the same language that everybody else is using.  Sometimes it is the most simple, emotive, and obvious words that make a pop song work. These are the lyrics that choke us up or kick us in the gut. Every verse is like a haiku with only so many syllables allowed.


It's all in the message

Some lyrics succeed because they tell us something powerful about our life and times. Good pop songs will invariably sneak a message in through the back door, whether it's about the three months when the song was in the charts, or something eternal, and very often, pop music will become the soundtrack to people's lives. Which is why songs can be like photographs. We hear a melody, a riff, or a chorus and immediately we are taken back to a significant moment, happy or sad when we heard that song.


An expressive performer, singing meaningful words over a great melody are the essential components of fantastic pop music. But the way a song is produced and arranged can seal its success. The producer/arranger has one job; to put the song into context, much like putting a picture in a frame and throughout pop history, arrangers have taken vital creative decisions that have been crucial to a song's popularity. A great arrangement will give the performer a chance to build the dynamic of a song and keep drawing the audience in. And very often, less is more.


Breaking the formula

Of course, with a distinct set of rules existing specifically to elevate a pop song into a multi-million-pound earner, it's hardly surprising that those rules occasionally get broken.  Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is light years away from being a classically structured pop song. It doesn't start with an obvious introduction or go straight into the verse, and listener's hearing the song for the first time tend to be completely baffled as to what's going on.


But this is exactly what made the song so successful. Bohemian Rhapsody genuinely broke all the proceeding rules. It ripped up the blueprint and created its own, new structure, or to be more precise, an anti-structure, and a musical narrative that left first-time listener's guessing what was going to happen next.


So, if the definition of a great pop song is a song that anyone can sing in the shower, which song did you sing today?













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