Before we go any further, it’s important to realize that there isn’t a concrete formula for writing a hit single.
Think of “Kung Fu Fighting”. That song was originally written as a B-side, and it had to be recorded very quickly (10 minutes) because Carl Douglas had a three-hour time constraint at the studio and they had used up all of their time recording the proposed A-side, “I Want to Give You My Everything”. “Kung Fu Fighting” may seem like an obvious hit today, but when it was written and recorded, Douglas and his producer didn’t really take it that seriously. It was Robin Blanchflower from Pye Records that insisted it be the A-side.
How about “What I Like About You” by The Romantics? When it was originally released, the song didn’t make it any further than #49 on the Billboard Hot 100. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s – after the song had been licensed for commercials – that it reached its peak of popularity, becoming one of the most known rock anthems ever recorded.
You just never know when you might hit it big. The only thing we’ve learned so far is that if you want to write a hit, a) you need to write and record music, and b) there is no formula.
If I could wave my magic wand over you and bestow a hit single, I would. However, there isn’t a template you can follow. What you need, more than anything, is determination, perseverance and a willingness to experiment.
Bear that in mind as you consider the following points.
Give Careful Consideration to Production Quality
This is how I approach the issue of production: if you can’t imagine your song being on the radio, it probably won’t be. A certain level of professionalism and quality will be expected by radio DJs, tastemakers, industry gatekeepers and so forth.
With that being said, you may not have to have the highest quality production for your song to become a hit. Hardware costs have come down significantly, so starting a home or project studio is more affordable than ever. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (#3 on the Billboard 200), The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. (#2 on the Billboard 200), Radiohead’s OK Computer (#21 on the Billboard 200) and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (#2 on the Billboard 200) are just a few examples of known albums that were recorded in a home studio.
Even then, you might find it beneficial to enlist the help of experienced professionals; if possible, someone who played a part in developing a hit single at some point in their career (the more recent the better). Even if you can’t afford to hire them, you could see if they’d be willing to answer a few of your questions. They could probably bring a much needed perspective to your project.
An experienced producer could add significant value to your efforts as well. The problem with relying too heavily on you or your band’s talent is that you’re often too close to the music to be able to see the forest for the trees. A producer should have more of a holistic vision of your music, which could help you to identify and emphasize the hooks in your songs. They could help you tighten up your arrangements and make them more listener-friendly.
If you trust your friends, family or fans to give you good feedback, you might ask their opinion as well. Perhaps you could get in touch with other industry experts. This is not design by committee (don’t even go there), so avoid trying to please everyone, but if someone offers a particularly constructive idea, you might consider putting their suggestions to use.
Study Your Favorite Hit Songs
If you’ve been a musician for a while, you’ve probably already studied some of your favorite musicians. However, have you taken the time to study your favorite hits?
This is a valuable exercise because you will probably begin to observe some commonalities between said songs. You may not be able to boil it down to an exact science, but you will likely glean a few useful ideas.
Notwithstanding, blindly emulating what others have done may not be the best tactic. Here are a couple of reasons why:
- By the time you’ve taken someone else’s template and adapted it to your own music, it will be dated. Others will have already done this, and after a while it will only produce diminishing returns. Predictive songwriting is futile, in a manner of speaking. Just look at Japan’s music scene in the early 90s; 80s hair metal was just beginning to grow in popularity!
- If you try to fit someone else’s formula around your music, it could appear forced, faked, or unbecoming. People may even think that you’re just trying to cash in on a trend. There are always exceptions, of course, but buyers beware.
So, in short, it’s a good idea to study what others have done, but you shouldn’t just be a robot or a copycat.
Make it Anthemic
There are essentially two qualities that make a song anthemic: 1) it’s easy to sing along to, and 2) it’s easy to relate to.
There are so many amazing examples of rock anthems. Journey, Queen, Kiss, U2, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and so many other bands have created songs that still get sung by cover bands and karaoke bar patrons all the time. Songs like “Don’t Stop Believin'”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “We Will Rock You” all have a certain timeless quality about them.
Does this mean that every hit single has a deep, intelligent, well-thought-out meaning to it? No way!
If I had to boil it down to a single word, it would be “relatable”. Even though people are all different, in many regards we are all the same. We all want to be appreciated and to be loved. We all want to have a purpose in life. We all want our lives to count for something.
If your song touches on a subject that evokes human emotion, you’ve hit the jugular. This is often where meaningful, long-lasting hit songs come from.
Experiment and Iterate
Writing a hit song will probably take some work. You will have to continue to grow and evolve as a musician and write more music (don’t forget to release singles, EPs and albums from time to time either; otherwise you won’t ever have a hit). You’ll have to experiment and iterate. You might even have to make tweaks to songs you never had the desire to change.
Just remember; you can’t force a hit. You can’t fit it into a box.
Rediscover the reasons you started playing music in the first place and begin to find the pure joy in it again. It’s good to work hard and to be in pursuit of a goal, but I don’t believe you can hold a dream in a chokehold for long before you begin to suffocate it. When you’re enjoying the process of creating music, you might be more willing to try things you never have before. Some magic could come out of that. People are attracted to those who are passionate about what they do.
As was pointed out at the beginning, “Kung Fu Fighting” was essentially an accidental hit. Neither Carl Douglas nor his producer instantly recognized its potential. Music doesn’t happen by accident; but sometimes hit singles do. Keep writing, keep recording and keep releasing. You never know what might resonate with the masses.
Author: David Andrew Wiebe
David Andrew Wiebe has built an extensive career in songwriting, live performance, recording, session playing, production work, investing, and music instruction. In addition to helping musicians unlock their full potential, he also continues to maintain a touring schedule with multiple bands.