We have all heard those hit songs that can be considered "timeless classics".
Whether it's a hip hop track, a rock classic or an 80's power ballad, these songs share some essential features that ensure they will be on the airwaves for years to come. Obviously there is not one hard and fast rule for this as every song is different, but here is a list of features that many of these hit records share.
A "Catchy" Song
Starting with the obvious, a hit record must be a great song. Above all the melody must be strong, as this is what a listener focuses on and this should be accompanied by some great lyrics and a good groove. You can apply the best production techniques possible, but if the song is weak then the record will sink without a trace!
A Strong Vocal
Having a great vocal is a real asset to any record. If you have a quality song and you have a strong vocalist to sing the melody, then this can be the golden ticket to creating a hit record. A great vocal does not necessarily need to be technically proficient, but more to do with how a singer can successfully interpret the emotion in the song i.e. how they can convey the message in the lyrics.
A Creative Arrangement
After the song and the vocal, you need to ensure you have a strong arrangement. This involves using the right structure and ensuring each section of the music is interesting for the listener. This can be achieved by adding extra instruments, adding a counter melody, changing the drum pattern, or changing the key etc. Have a listen to some hit songs, and pay attention to the subtle differences between each section. How is verse 2 different to verse 1? How is the last chorus different to the first?
An Accomplished Performance
You may have heard the crude expression "You can't goldplate a turd" and this definitely applies to creating a hit record. A track must sound like there is "life" in the performance and no amount of editing in the studio, fiddling with EQ's, compression or reverb can replicate this. It can be hard to put your finger on it at times, which is all the more frustrating, but sometimes one take just sounds better than another. If you have musicians who put there all into a performance and play with real emotion and intensity, then the production phase becomes far easier!
A Well Produced Track
Although there are examples of hit songs which don't technically sound very good, generally the really big and timeless records do sound excellent. A well engineered record does not guarantee it will be a smash, especially if the song, vocal, arrangement and performance are not up to scratch, but it can add an extra dimension to the overall sound, if the EQ's are well balanced and the right amount of reverb and compression is applied.
The Timeless Factor
Despite having all the previous factors in place, if the track sounds like the last trend, and the musicians or band members look like it too, then the record might not take off as you would like. Having said that, a "retro" look and sound to a band can work out really well if you go back two or more trends.
Are all the above factors essential for every hit song?
Well in short, no.
There will always be some songs which become hit records and cannot be explained. You will find some songs with weak vocals and melodies which take the charts by storm.
However, on most of the really big hits, you will find they contain the majority, if not all, of the factors in this article. Songs like "Merry Christmas Everybody" by Slade will be heard every December in shopping malls and on the radio. Other hits like "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson and "Imagine" by John Lennon will be played all year round for many years to come.
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