Want to Write a Hit Song? Here Are 3 Strategies to Get You Started.
The following is adapted from Song Journey.
So you want to write a hit song—where should you get started?
Keep in mind, no one can guarantee a hit. No label, no producer, no artist, and no songwriter. Max Martin misses, Diane Warren misses, Ryan Tedder misses. They all miss more often than they hit. There is no formula. But there are things you can do to up the odds of your song getting heard, cut, and if all the stars align, becoming a hit.
In this article, we’ll look three strategies to improve your odds of writing a hit.
#1: Do Your Homework
Start by listening to the hits and look for patterns. Are you hearing more and more songs about affirmation? I want to see you be brave, strong, beautiful, happy?
Since the beginning, songwriters have known one of the quickest ways to a listener’s heart is to lift them up with your song. There’s a fancy term called second-person positive, basically a lyric that makes someone else feel great about themselves.
Think about the Joe Cocker classic, “You Are So Beautiful.”
Nowadays, every publisher, producer, and artist in Nashville wants “up-tempo positive.” The reason for this is the sheer volume of ballads and mid-tempos they get. When a couple writers get in the room with an acoustic guitar or a piano, they seem to turn into Joni Mitchell or James Taylor. It’s hard to create that energy unless you plan for it, but your chances of getting that hit improve by giving the powers that be what they want.
#2: Deconstruct Current Hits
Go beyond just listening to current hits or learning to play them. Do things like write down the structure, print out the lyric, and make notes about the production.
I’m always amazed at the songwriting clients I get who will say they want to write a huge song but pay absolutely no attention to current hits. If you’re writing pop or even new country and are still creating long intros, lots of verses, using only one hook, and aren’t familiar with terms such as post-chorus, you might have a harder road.
Try going one step beyond deconstructing and create a playlist with a couple of hits along with a song of your own. Try to pick songs that might have something in common with yours, but the idea is to be objective. Does your song hold up to the others?
If not, why? Go back to your notes. What’s different?
The point is not to clone but to get this info into your subconscious so the next song you write is at least informed by structural ideas that are more current.
Even though you’re listening to the radio and learning the structural and lyrical as well as musical content, remember the songs you’re hearing were probably written and recorded as much as a year ago or more. If you set out to write something exactly like what you’re hearing, you’re likely too late. So what can you do now?
#3: Add Yourself to the Mix
Try to take it all in and then add yourself to the mix. What makes you different as a songwriter? Can you bring something fresh to your songwriting?
You could argue there’s nothing new under the sun, but I disagree.
Music goes in cycles, styles change, and old becomes new every once in a while. Our job is to tap into a listener’s head and create something a whole lot of people love at the same time. It’s not easy, but the chances get better not only by honing your craft, but also by learning what came before (even if that’s only a month back). It all goes into your toolbox as a songwriter and gives you the best chance of writing a hit.
For more advice on writing a hit song, you can find Song Journey on Amazon.
Mark Cawley is a hit songwriter who coaches other writers around the globe through his one-on-one, online service iDocoach.com. His songs have been on more than 16 million records with cuts ranging from Tina Turner to Wynonna Judd to The Spice Girls. Mark is a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, Nashville Rising Star, Belmont University’s Commercial Music program, and West Coast Songwriter events. He’s also a contributing author to USA Songwriting and Songwriter Magazine, a sponsor for the Australian Songwriting Association, and a mentor for The Songwriting Academy UK. Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, Mark now resides in Nashville, Tennessee.