In this guide, I want to share some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned from analyzing 1000’s of songs. I want to show you the importance of song structure, dynamics and adding excitement to your songs.
These topics are rarely mentioned by music professionals but I believe they hold the key to creating hit records.
I’ve always found it interesting how people react to music. In the past 8 years that I’ve been producing music, I’ve taken a very analytical approach when listening to music in general. Constantly trying to figure out what makes a hit record a ‘hit record’.
- Have you ever wondered why you sometimes skip a song on your Spotify playlist just seconds before it ends?
- Ever wondered where you got that special power to determine if a song is good after listening to it for 15 seconds?
- What about those ‘ordinary’ people who can tell if they like or dislike a song but can’t explain why they do.
- Or wait… Ever had goosebumps?
By the time you’re done reading this article, you will know exactly:
- How to properly structure your songs using proven hit-formulas.
- Why most songs these days are only 2:30 minutes long and how it can benefit you as well.
- How to add more excitement to your songs and have people play your songs on repeat.
- How to create a dynamic buildup throughout your songs to expand the listener’s attention span.
- How to make your songs ‘easy’ to listen to using The Power of Repeat.
- How to get people hooked to your song from the start
There are lots of articles written about this important part of songwriting already so I won’t go really in-depth about it. Facts are you’ve probably noticed this already in today’s music.
EDM tracks are known for using the same song structure over and over again. The media even covered this when someone mixed four different Martin Garrix songs together.
But it’s not only in EDM. Similar formulas are used over and over again in Pop and Urban related genres as well.
Here’s a layout of a common song structure used in today’s Pop and R&B music:
|Intro||4 or 8 bars|
|Verse||12 or 16 bars|
|Verse||12 or 16 bars|
There are other possible variations upon this as well. Your song structure depends entirely on what type of song you’re creating.
Hip hop tracks, for example, (usually) have 16 bar verses and 8 bar hooks.
The length of your song
Luckily, there’s a simple trick to determine the best structure of your song.
Make sure the total length of your song is no longer than 3:45 minutes. Preferably, make it even shorter. About 3:00 – 3:30 minutes tops.
Most songs these days are around 3:00 minutes long. Some even shorter! This is a major difference compared to ten years ago. Back then, songs were anywhere between 3:30 and 5:00 minutes.
There are two reasons why the length of songs have greatly decreased over the years.
- People have a shorter attention span compared to ten years ago. (We’ll cover this more in-depth further in this guide)
- Financial reasons
The financial reason why the length of songs have decreased has to do with the introduction of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. Hard copy sales are almost irrelevant in today’s music industry and labels are desperately trying to bring their profits back up.
Since streaming is far less profitable, decreasing the song length helps to increase the rotation speed of songs in Spotify playlists for example. Generating more plays equals more profit.
Needless to say, this applies to independent artists as well. It’s more beneficial to distribute an album of twelve 2-minute songs than an EP of five 4-minute songs.
A dynamic buildup throughout your song is of the utmost importance, yet a lot of artists fail to understand this crucial part of songwriting.
I truly believe it holds the key to creating hit records so I decided to base an entire theory on it called The Rollercoaster Music Theory. It’s an important lesson that we teach artists in our Zero To Radio Ready masterclass.
Applying a logical and dynamical structure to your songs has everything to do with applying the right techniques at the right time. There are simple techniques to expand the attention span of the listener. One of them is what I call ‘The element of surprise’.
The missing element of Surprise
“Why is it that you skip the last 15 seconds of a song in your playlist?”
The answer is: “The missing element of surprise.”
You already know the ending. You’ve heard the same chorus several times already. Time to fast forward to the next song.
This element of surprise is critical for expanding the attention span of the listener and it applies to the entire duration of your song.
A rule of thumb that I teach producers all the time is to add a new element to a song every 4 or 8 bars. That way, you keep the attention of the listener and they don’t get bored after just seconds of listening to it.
This applies to the vocal production of a song as well.
Vocal Layers & Harmonies
The most effective way to add more excitement to your song is to add different vocal layers. But this is often used in the wrong way.
It’s not easy to master the skill of harmonizing. Unfortunately, once someone masters the skill, they often over-use it. I get it, you’re excited.
Here’s the thing… always keep that Element of Surprise in your mind.
Meaning: Don’t give too much away too soon!
In a way, vocal layers and harmonies are part of the song structure as well. Throughout the song, you want to dynamically build up the excitement in your track and keep introducing new elements (of surprise). That’s what gonna keep people hooked to your song.
Dynamically adding more vocal layers to your song will have a much better effect then stacking a lot of layers throughout the entire song.
For example, you can add more vocal layers in the second verse and chorus to make it sound more exciting than the first verse and chorus.
Here’s an analysis I did for Jason Derulo’s hit song “Swalla”. (It’s part of our Zero To Radio Ready masterclass as well)
Getting people hooked to your song from the start
People have a special power to determine whether they like or dislike a song within 15 seconds. Yes, it’s true.
That’s why you have to get people hooked to your song from the start. To learn how to do this, we’re gonna go back to the song structure for a minute.
Let’s say you recorded a track and you feel like it has a very strong chorus. In that case, put it before the first verse even starts! Start with the chorus instead of an intro and verse.
|Verse||12 or 16 bars|
It works the same way if you have very strong lyrics in the first verse. You’d want to put that in the listeners head as soon as possible.
A mistake made by a lot of today’s independent artists is that they let the instrumental determine the structure of their song. Most artists get their beats from online producers and these beats are already structured when they buy them.
This might not always be the best structure for your song!
Don’t be afraid to change the structure of the beat. Usually, when you have the tracked out stems of a beat, you can switch it up yourself and make the music work into your advantage.
Dynamically building up towards the big BANG of your song
You watch movies right?
Have you ever noticed how the music in those movies grabs you, excites you, and determines your feelings at the time (or how you’re going to feel in 5 seconds when that creepy little girl with the wet hair pops up on the screen?) 👻
In a way, that’s exactly what you want to do with your music as well!
And that, my friend, is what leads to giving people goosebumps when listening to your music.
So how do you achieve this?
Again, use the element of surprise!
Start off small, then bring more excitement to your track by adding vocal layers and harmonies (if you’re a singer). Keep your listener’s attention for as long as possible. Grab them, excite them and lead them to the big BANG! (your chorus, obviously)
Making your songs ‘easy’ to listen to using ‘The Power of Repeat’
This may seem a bit odd after I just told you to keep the element of surprise in your songs so let me explain.
When I produce an instrumental for an artist, I always add a pre-chorus sounding section to it. This could be a simple 4-bar breakdown just before the chorus comes in or perhaps a change of chords. I do this with a clear reason to benefit the entire song.
Let me show you in a random example what a pre-chorus does
Listen to how the pre-chorus kicks in at 02:11 and again after the 2nd verse at 03:10, making it a repeat factor.
These 4 bars play a significant part in the song because it gives a lot of impact to the chorus.
The listener is ‘used’ to hearing the chorus drop right after it which makes it ‘easy’ to listen to the song.
This is very important in creating a potential hit record!
Sometimes the songwriter uses the same melody, yet other lyrics, in the 2nd pre-chorus. This is a common writing technique used in duets as well.
A pre-chorus is usually intended for singers but if you’re a rapper you could see this as using the same lyrics at the end of both the first and second verse. I’m sure you’ve heard this before.
This is a good example of a repeat factor too and can be just as effective.
The True Purpose of The Bridge
After 2 verses and 2 (or 3) choruses, you’re nearly out of options to keep up the excitement in the song. Then the bridge comes in.
The bridge of a song allows you to switch it up and build up towards an even greater climax the listener has already experienced in the choruses.
It can be used in several different ways and I really can’t tell what you should do. It depends on you and your song entirely.
Just make sure that, whatever you do, the last chorus has to blow the listener away! Work towards that.
Here are some examples of things to do in the bridge:
- If you’re a singer, feature a rapper in the bridge (as a 3rd verse)
- Break it down, singing your original chorus without all the extra vocal layers. Keep it small.
- Break it down Acappella, singing your original chorus while muting parts of the instrumental. Put the focus on the vocals.
- Use entirely different melodies as a singer
- Repeat the pre-chorus
Ad-libs and how we all love to show off, don’t we!?
If you’re an R&B singer, you know what I’m talking about, right?
Adding these silky smooth R&B licks can really add the finishing touches to your song. However, if used in the wrong way, it can be super annoying as well.
As much as we all love to show off our vocal skills, hopefully, you understand now that it’s all about dynamics.
That’s why it’s best to never add ad-libs in the first verse or chorus of a song. After the first chorus, you may start recording ad-libs. But keep it small!
The further you get into the song, the more you can add.
Just listen to any R&B song from the ’90s or ’00s and focus on where they’ve placed the ad-libs. You’ll notice that it’s almost always later in the song.
Your time to shine – The Last Chorus
And there it is… The final chorus. We’ve all been waiting for this!
This is your moment to shine. Enhance the excitement and drop your vocal skills on that last chorus as if your life depended on it.
No, seriously. The ending of a song is critical to make a song sound ‘finished.’ Believe it or not, the listener can make his judgment about a song in the last seconds.
Keeping the excitement going on throughout the whole song is hard. At some point, you really are out of options to take it to a higher level.
This is where ad-libs come in and more the reason why you shouldn’t add too many too soon in your song. Leave those R&B licks for when you really need them.
What kind of ad-libs? Big ones, smaller ones, it all depends on your song. Either way, ‘something’ has to happen there.
Every day I come across new talented artists, yet a lot of them lack professionalism in their self-recorded tracks. I understand since it’s not easy to do this music thing on your own. Just keep in mind that the answers you’re looking for are all around you. Especially, when it comes to producing songs.
Take the time to analyze some of your favourite songs. Break it down and try to identify the key parts of it. Not only will this give you a better understanding of what hit records are about. It will also keep you inspired, motivated and on a consistently growing learning curve.
Hopefully, I’ve given you some helpful tips to become an even better artist or songwriter than you already are. Nonetheless, thank you for reading throughout this entire article and I wish you all the best in your music career.
Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts. I’d appreciate that.