4 Requirements for Writing a Hit Single
Songwriters have an incredible mountain to climb each and every time they sit down to write a song. They’re tasked with creating something from nothing – a whole sonic story needs to unfold and it all starts with them.
No pressure, right?
Stack on top of that the demand from managers and labels for radio-ready perfection and the heat is on. A good songwriter needs to be able to produce consistently or they won’t make the cut.
Many of the pros that have been doing this for a while have found the formula though. The creative process for them becomes as much of a science experiment or math equation as it is a writing exercise. They’ve become experts at listening for what works, borrowing inspiration from others, and reducing the requirements down to these four main elements allowing them to churn out hit after hit like its nothing.
The rhythm section of your productions needs to be locked in with the grid or at least with each other. This groove provides a foundation for the rest of your tracks and a foundation for your listener to resonate with. In modern music, this is your percussion and bass leading the way.
A great rhythm will have everyone dancing, tapping or bobbing along (even head banging,) depending on the song. A solid groove can really set the energy level and mood of a song before the listener hears other instruments or a vocal cutting through.
Even songs that aren’t driven by a fast and loud rhythm section find themselves centered around a rhythmic pattern. In an acoustic arrangement, this might be percussive guitar playing or basic hand percussion. It’s the natural metronome that the listener syncs up with and helps them feel the song. Without rhythm, you’re missing a key pillar of your production – but rhythm alone won’t help you make a hit.
Harmony and rhythm go hand in hand when it comes to building the musical landscape of a song. Between the two, you can set the mood of a track, the way it moves, and create tension and release. Harmonies are where your chord progressions & riffs contribute to the overall sound of the song. They create the tonal palette around your lead vocals.
The chord progression and harmonies that you choose to incorporate in your work help drive the narrative and make you song sound different from every other song. Simple songs with basic chord progressions are common, so it’s the delivery that really counts. Unless you’re working in a genre that prides itself on complexity and dexterity, most hits are going to come from three or four chords that the entire production is built around.
It’s up to you as the producer to craft those into something unique and catchy.
Perhaps “the” key to any major radio success is based on the melody of the song, specifically when it comes to vocals. Writing toplines for songs doesn’t have to be complicated, but it definitely needs to be memorable.
Think about any of the songs that have gotten stuck in your head over the past year. Chances are, they’ve gotten stuck there because of the melody you heard, not the rhythm or harmonies underneath it. It doesn’t even have to be a lead vocal to do this – tons of songs use whistles, synths & other uncommon sounds as their hook to solidify their place as a mainstream success.
Last but not least, your audience is your biggest hurdle as a producer seeking commercial success. You need to know what your audience is looking for and deliver it just like any other product in the world. Know what your target demographic relates to lyrically. Find out what it is about certain mixes that resonates with them. Often, the biggest mixers in any genre are using the same techniques over and over again to add “their sound” to a mix.
You want to make something that gets your listeners to pay attention, and make others do the same. The biggest compliment you can get is someone shushing their friends to make them listen to part of a song you worked on that they really like.
Add things like drum fills, solos & space to keep things interesting in your production. Finding the right balance while maintaining a sense of constant movement and rising action isn’t easy, but it’s what your listeners want to hear!
Mixing A Hit
Production knowledge isn’t enough if you’re trying to be a one-stop shop for artists in your area though. You need to know how to track things in a way that captures their sound accurately. You’ve got to learn the editing and mixing techniques that keep things sounding polished and full in even the densest sessions.
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