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Creating a Pop Song Part 1: Instrumentation

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This post is part of a series called Creating a Pop Song.
Creating a Pop Song Part 2: Tempo

Have you ever wondered what defines a pop song? Well I have, and decided to find out. I gathered data from 52 Number 1 hits, the most successful from each year spanning 1960 through to 2011 as determined on the Australian pop music charts and came up with some interesting recommendations as to what technical aspects this group of songs has in common.

Pop Music

52 songs were chosen for this study, as determined by the Kent Music Report, archived by the National Film and Sound archive and also the ARIA Music Charts. The songs chosen are seen below.

I would like to state at this point that the information I will present over this four-part series of quick tips is to be taken with an amount of jest. Treat it as seriously or as comically as you wish.


In Part 1 we will focus on the instrumentation used. Each song was listened to and the instrumentation noted. There were 21 categories of instruments chosen, and it was found that the average number of instruments within a song was seven.

The above chart shows that the most amount of instruments featured in a song is 11 and is shared by songs from 1988, 1989 and 1998. While the least amount of instruments is found in Austen Tayshus' spoken word piece 'Australiana'.

If we apply the seven instrument cut off point to the most common instruments used we see that Drums, Bass, Electric Guitar, Synth, Strings, Vocals and Backing Vocals are determined to be the most common instruments used in a Number 1 hit.

To give you an example, here is 10 seconds of four songs that feature the seven instruments, they are Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, 'The Time of My Life' from 1988, Bryan Adam's 'Everything I Do' from 1991, Wet, Wet, Wet's 'Love Is All Around' from 1994 and the 2003 hit, 'Angels Brought Me Here' from Guy Sebastian.

Instrumentation example:

It is probably no secret to many of us that rhythm and melody are the key to most styles of music. Even without vocals, there is generally always an instrument that takes over the melodic limelight of a song, just listen to Skrillex! The data presented in the above chart reinforces this with Drums (rhythm) and Vocals (melody) being by far the most common instruments.

Instrumental Conclusion

So when you are writing that next big hit, keep in mind the instruments that have been most commonly featured over the last 52 years. In Part 2 we will look at tempo and song length. Stay tuned, and remember that no matter what you create, let statistics only be a guide.

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