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The Hit Song Puzzle
by James Linderman
2001 James Linderman. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.

Lets face it, as songwriters, we are all trying to sort out the pieces of a huge puzzle. The puzzle represents what it is that publishers are exactly looking for as they weed through the thousands of demos they receive, in search of the next big hit. Perhaps it would help if we were to try to imagine what we might ask them to create if it was their job to make the art and our job to sell it. I think we would then begin to look at the music marketplace as a place where business trends and sociological shifts meet with creating art and making your mark. This is where the rubber meets the road if it is a hit song you are after.

If we want to climb "inside the head" of a publisher we would find that they knowingly or intuitively are calculating the marketable merits of a song based on three main musical principles; form, style and originality.

Form is a term that encompasses the musical and lyrical templates, or moulds, that your original creative content, is poured into. Great writers study form and often use an established form that has already been "test driven" on a number of previous hit songs. Amateur writers have a tendency to create their form as they write their song. This often causes the song to lack the impact it would have had on the listener had it been written in a reliable form and therefore dilutes it's marketability. There should be a law that states, "Do not attempt to break into the industry with a piece of music that experiments with form". Musical form, through history, has evolved only slightly compared to style and so the study and application of form is time well spent. Form has good shelf life.

Style is never static and yet, it also never really causes a revolution as is popularly thought. The notion that there are violent and dramatic revolutions in style is a contrived exaggeration used by the industry at large to get us exited about buying products (read "hype").

Style is in fact constantly in evolution. What we hear on the radio and get sold in the stores is only incrementally different from what was "large" three months ago. Music on the radio and on the front racks seems to turn over seasonally as it evolves constantly.

It could be argued that there are moments of revolution that turn the world on its ear, so to speak. I have heard it said that The Beatles "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" created a revolution. I have challenged those that have made this claim to give a fresh listen to "Revolver" and note that in the Beatles preceding album, they were well on their way to creating in the styles that emerged full bloom in "Sgt.Pepper". I'm not saying that "Pepper" is not a pop masterpiece (I do not want to get a mountain of hate mail), I just want to illustrate that stylistically, your music should not just spring up out of nowhere with the expectation that listeners should embrace it without them being brought to that spot through a cultural process. Great art is created within such a process.

Originality is a dangerous feature in a song because songs are designed to express common ideas and emotions that as many listeners as possible will be able to relate to. Originality by definition strives for uniqueness that is not collective. Original however can also be defined as meaning "old style" as in original recipe. Great song writing, therefore, is a balance of unique originality and original story telling from our common collection of human experiences.

Perhaps our best chance at finding the most accurate recipe for a hit song is to have, and implement, a thorough knowledge and understanding of form and to then marry this to the current trends being displayed as the style of the moment. Add a touch of originality in the actual content to make it fresh and uniquely your own, yet socially relevant and there you have it. Reliable form, popular style and original content, a piece of cake right?

I must agree that this is easier said than done but the more I get to know some of the people that are in the business of choosing music for the popular market, the more I am convinced that many of them know how they need us to write songs for them to be able to sell them. Even if they cannot articulate this in technical terms, they have an inner sense of form, style and originality that is consistent and yet constantly evolving.

Understanding all the things your music needs to be, outside of what you need it to be, is an essential piece in what we would all agree is the very big puzzle of the hit song formula.


James Linderman lives and works at theharmonyhouse, a music lesson, songwriting and music pre-production facility in Newmarket Ontario. He has worked as a collaborating songwriter and consultant for The Toronto Office of Catholic Youth and leads a music workshop program for Life 100.3 Christian radio. James writes songwriting articles for The Muse's Muse web magazine, Canadian Musician Magazine and Professional Musician Magazine. In 2001, James will be producing a national, music writing, development program for Songwriters of Canada and will be a guest speaker at The Harvest Worship Leaders Conference at Gateway Harvest Fellowship in Barrie ON. James has a Canadian University and American College education in music composition and is the author of The Christian Contemporary Songwriting Workbook.
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