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What Makes a Hit? Analyzing the Top 5 Radio Hits of 2010

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What are the elements of a Number 1 hit song? What are the songwriters and artists using that can propel them to the top of the charts again and again? What can you learn from simplifying your songs and following tried and tested techniques used by modern songwriters? In the following Premium tutorial I hope to shed some light on the production, songwriting and essence of what constitutes a hit record and how you can go about creating one of your own.

Call and Response

It is popularly accepted that modern popular music owes a lot to the its African-American roots. This is true. Pop music, you could say grew from African-American slaves doing their so-called field hollers in the deep south. These field hollers slowly turned into Blues, Soul, R'n'B and Rock 'n' Roll. And all these styles begat even more styles to the point that there are so many genres in today's music world that it's hard to recognize one from the other. Lady Antebellum's “Need You Now” was a country song but was re-recorded with some rock guitar work in order to cater to the more rock-centric mainstream. Does that mean it's still country or has it become rock? Or does even matter?

There is a predominant element from the field hollers and black African-American culture that still permeates quite strongly in almost all of these songs, especially the more R'n'B-centric ones. And that is the call and response. The call and response used to be a simple melodic exchange by a song “leader” and its group. Music-wise this was – and is – often exchanged by singer and a group of instruments instead of two distinct vocal groups. You've heard this with gospel singers that exchange call and responses with their choir group and you might also have heard this with blues singers that exchange the call and response with their guitar.

A few different genres using the call and response..

Louis Prima - Jump Jive and Wail – The call and response is shared between the lead singer and the horn section that answers each of his vocal phrase.

The Who – My Generation – This is the rock and roll equivalent of a gospel singer exchanging the call and response with his choir. Instead of a choir we have a lead singer calling out the first lines of the verse with the backing vocals calling out in response.

Hank Williams – You Cheatin' Heart – Early country used steel guitars or – as in this case, the fiddle - to correspond with the singer. Notice that the fiddle is used as the response to the singer but it also acts as a kind of supporting factor to back up his lyrical melancholy.

The reason I included such diverse genres, from Jump Blues and Country to Seventies Rock was to demonstrate how widely used this element is to modern songwriting. It doesn't matter which genre you are writing in, the call and response tool can be a very effective way to propel the song forward and also to provide some contrast in the song. Like I said, this is widely used still to this day and by analyzing the modern music of the last 10 or so months we can definitely see this being used to its full extent.

Common Arrangements

For any mix to work, there needs to be a specific recipe of elements in place that groove together. A hit single for instance, has a solid foundation which is usually the beat with a memorable – or an altogether impossibly unforgettable – melody. In the modern music scene, especially when you analyze the five top hits of 2010 it's downright obvious how incredibly important a good beat with a good melody works together to create a hit.

What every hit has can usually be broken into a few simple pieces. Every song need a solid rhythm section, which is usually represented by a drum-beat of some sort. A riff or a instrumental rhythm usually supplies the musical foundation of the song the drum-beat lacks. The all important melody, or lead element is dominant on top of that coupled with various rhythm breaks or instrumental fills that may act as a call and response element or just as filler to fill up the production. In the following tutorial we will refer to them as:




Fills or Breaks

Bobby Owsinski's book The Mixing Engineer's Handbook has a very good chapter on mixing arrangements that analyze some songs within very similar categories. Once you know where to put each element and what you're lacking you can get a better idea of where the mix is going, what the production needs and how the song can be better.

Song Structure

Another thing to keep in mind, especially when we're discussing top ten hit songs is the song structure. A great resource for budding songwriters is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Songwriting by Joel Hirschhorn. It touches upon all of the important factors needed when you are struggling to write a hit song. Hit songs have a very predictable structure to them and like you have probably noticed by passive listening throughout the years the emphasis of the chorus is crucial for a hit song. That said, it doesn't mean that all the other parts of the song can be lackluster; all of the parts must be as strong as you can make them but the chorus has to stand out and be as memorable as possible.

Basic structure – Almost every song follows the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle/chorus routine. It's predictable, the listener expects this and it's good to rely on some sort of outline when writing. There are variations of course; some songs have pre-choruses that build up into the chorus (Katy Perry's California Gurls) and others rely so heavily on the chorus that it kicks off the song (Rihanna's Rude Boy for instance.)

Repetition – Simple repetition, be it a memorable riff or the chorus hook is the most important part of a hit song. Some hits repeat the chorus ad nauseam, to the point that you almost get sick of listening to hit. But since it's usually the most memorable part of the song everything revolves around the repeated chorus hooks. Think about it, no one says that a hit song “has that one great verse”, but they always remember the chorus.

Now, keeping these few important things in mind it is easier to deconstruct and analyze the mixes of 2010 (and any other year for that matter) to see what they are doing production-wise and why they work so well. I'm using the 10 Best Songs of 2010 (to date) from the AOL Radio blog as a reference. Your top ten list might be a little bit different but for the sake of this article we're going with these five songs.

Lady Antebellum – Need You Now

This is the only “band” song on this top five list. Therefore is does sound a lot different than the other, more Electronic Pop and R'n'B tracks that populate the list. But that doesn't mean we cannot use the same metrics to analyze what makes this song such a great hit. The simple chord progression enable the very memorable melody to take center stage, and with occasional harmony just absolutely nails the emotion of the lyrics as well. Even though some might argue that top hits are just mindlessly churned out by the hit-making major labels the fact is that most of these songs are actually about something. And when all the production elements mentioned before have grabbed the ear of the listener the meaning of the lyrics start getting through. Most people usually disregard lyrics or don't listen to them that intently, which makes it all the more important that the song is catchy.

The chord progression is an incredibly simple A – C#m in the verse and a E – Abm in the chorus with only slight variations throughout. An incredibly simple chord based guitar song with tasteful chord flourishes to add interest.

By analyzing this song with our check list we can put the various elements into the categories quite easily.

Beat – Since this is a simple live band song the beat is obviously supplied by the steady beat of the drummer.

Riff – The acoustic guitar riff, that you might have learned how to play above supplies the steady rhythmic riff to the song. If it weren't for the steady rhythm of the guitar the mix would feel empty and hollow.

Melody – The main vocals supply the melody and are further enhanced by the powerful harmonies when the two singers harmonize each other.

Fills or Breaks – At first, the piano plays a memorable riff that opens up the song but throughout the song it acts as a filling element in-between vocal phrases. The same can be said about the lead guitar that plays a call and response pattern with the vocals in the chorus until it steps up in the solo part to play its lead role.

In essence, it is the power of the melody that makes Lady Antebellum's “Need You Now” such a powerful single. The haunting loneliness of the reverbed piano and lead guitar only act to enhance the melody and the underlying meaning of the song.

Taio Cruz – Break Your Heart.

Taio Cruz's “Break Your Heart” is a great example of an incredibly rhythmic single. Almost every aspect of the mix has a pulsing rhythm pattern. Whether it's the arpeggiated synth riffs, the rhythmic chorus vocals or the Ludacris rap cameo, everything works together to create a pulsating R'n'B smash hit.

Beat – Due to the rhythmic nature of almost all of the elements in the mix, the drum-beat is very basic. There are a few intricacies here and there but it's mostly based around a simple four-four kick/snare pattern with a 16th note hi-hat pattern in the chorus to create subjective speed to the chorus part.

Riff – The arpeggiated synth riff is the backbone of the song, and works so well as a stand-alone rhythm that the beat doesn't need any extra complications. The synth part elevates in the chorus to a higher register for added interest.

Melody – Due to the rhythmic nature of the song, and it being in the R'n'B / Hip Hop genre it's not surprising that it's all about the beat. However, there is an incredibly strong melody in the verses that work off the rap vocals with the call and response techniques mentioned earlier. The call and response with the prechorus melody and the rhythmic “statement” in the chorus all work together to give each part a different lead element.

Breaks – The “whoa oh oh” response vocals in the verses act as fills to the lead rap vocal. Some synthesizer also act as fills where they play breaks that lead into other parts but since the arpeggiated riff synthesizers are so aggressive and constant there is almost no room to add other types of fill instruments.

Arpeggiated Euro-House synth sounds, Rap vocals and R'n'B melodies coupled with aggressive chorus lines make Taio Cruz's hit single such a great example of a modern R'n'B hit.

Katy Perry – California Gurls

Katy Perry's incredibly bubble gummy hit about California girls is a perfect example of simple riffs, strong verses and hook-laden choruses. The strong synth riff plays against the simple back-beat of the drums with various fills played throughout by both the bass guitar and to some extent the backing vocals and Snoop Dogg.

Song structure – This song has a typical hit structure. A double verse is followed by a sustained prechorus that builds up into the first chorus. A common songwriting “shortcut” is to only have one verse after the chorus and thus jumping straight into the chorus motions again. Usually, some sort of bridge or middle-eight is used to give the listener a breather from the choruses. In this case we have a cameo performance by Snoop Dogg that takes the song in a different direction without changing any of the fundamental production elements.

Beat – The drum loop is an incredibly simple one but there are intricate layers to all of sounds making it sound very powerful. There is a distinct extra snare/clap hit that closes every verse line in addition to the electronic snare fills. For the double choruses the beat is the same for the first run through but notice how the hi-hat pattern gets busier when the chorus is repeated? Subtle accents like that add excitement.

Riff – The synthesizer riff supplies the simple riff that everything else works off of, whether that's the riff of the verse/chorus or the sustained chords of the pre-chorus. Later on the funk guitar supplies a different riff that compliments the simple harmonic structure of the synth riff and bass-line.

Melody – The lead vocals of Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg are the main melodic elements, although it can't really be said Snoop's parts are actually melodic. However, they both act as lead parts to this production. The vocoded “California Girls” voice part that acts as a very subtle supporting riff in the choruses comes into the lead in the outro, its sound being very reminiscent of California Love by 2 Pac.

Fills or Breaks – There are a few interesting fills that abound in different parts of the song. When the bass guitar comes in it acts as a supporting rhythm foundation element but it also does fills in the form of “slaps” between vocal phrases. The same can be said to the snare beat which plays fills whenever the vocal phrases end. The most important thing is that even though all these elements are doing all sorts of different fills and breaks they never interfere with the main lead part of the song, i.e. the vocal.

Production and mixing wise, there are interesting things going on. The constant build-up of instruments means that there is always something being introduced into the mix, keeping the listener engaged. Holding off on introducing the bass or electric guitar can keep a simple chord progression like this interesting. The automated EQ filters that open up the synth riff as well as the drum loop in the rap part are interesting ways to create contrast and interest to an unchanging chord progression. In the end, the song is a simple but effective production built around a hook-laden chorus.

Rihanna – Rude Boy

Being European, whenever I hear the ambient synth sounds that permeate hits such as “Rude Boy” I automatically think of Swedish Techno and German House clubs. Therefore it comes as no surprise to hear that “Rude Boy” was produced by Norwegian production team Stargate. Whatever the origin of the synth sounds used in “Rude boy”, the sound selection and subsequent production come together to create a fairly dark but hypnotic pop single wedged halfway between hip-hop and house, with hints of Ragga and Ska.

Beat – Interesting drum beats that have varied percussion, hi-hat and tambourine patterns throughout. The drum beat has an interesting follow pattern by the percussion as the 808-ish kick drum starts off the beat but it isn't until the snare hits that the percussion kicks in. In the verse we have a tambourine playing a steady 16th note pattern but the the steadiness is taken over by the synth in the chorus, allowing the beat to become more chopped up.

Riff – The euro-synths supply an ambient chordal structure to the chorus. The verse in contrast sounds quite empty and there aren't as many things filling in the spaces except the synth bass line and the heavily processed backing vocals.

Melody – Even though some critics might have dubbed the production as monotone the vocal production is absolutely stellar. Even though it's not as melodic as the other songs on this list - or any of the other Rihanna songs for that matter - the ambient melody of the synth lines and the talkative nature of the vocal melody work really well together to create a compelling chorus.

Breaks – There are all sorts of vocal production, percussion riffs and other fills that break up the production. The snare rolls and vocal riffs do a great job of filling up the spaces where interest is needed.

The most interesting thing about listening to top-ten hits production wise is the way these songs span the complete frequency spectrum. Compare that to some rock mixes that seem to be very dull in the high frequencies. If you listen back to back to stellar pop productions and famous rock mixes you can really notice how the higher frequencies aren't represented as well in some rock mixes. In comparison they almost sound muddier and not as bright. Maybe that's due to the instrumentation and arrangement than anything else, since Pop and R'n'B use more higher frequency instruments such as synths and percussion, whereas rock is mostly routed in the typical guitar, drums and bass. Whatever the reason is it's very ear-opening to listen to how modern pop producer use every inch of the frequency spectrum to convey their message.

Beautiful Girls – B.O.B.

“Beautiful Girls” is a case of simplicity. The simple piano line continues throughout the entire song following the simple four-chord progression with a memorable chorus melody is contrasted with the rapped verses. Even in the middle breakdown section the piano lines continues playing. Since it's more of a rap/hip-hop song with a sing-songy chorus it's easy to keep the same chords throughout, adding variations and feelings in the vocal elements in order to break up and separate the seemingly similar parts.

Beat – Just like the simple piano riff, the simple drum beat continues quite unchangingly throughout the song as well with only a few simple breaks. The bass line keeps the foundation tight by closely following the kick drum as well.

Riff – Did I mention that simple piano line yet? Because it's the backbone riff of the entire song. There are electric piano synth sounds that help to accent the chord progression and electric guitar stabs that add some rhythmic variation but everything seems to revolve around that piano riff.

Lead – The melody of the chorus and the rap of the are the lead elements of this song. How they play off one another is what gives a seemingly simple song such a varied contrast.

Call and Response – The chorus is a great example of the call and response technique. Bruno Mars calls out the chorus melody to which B.O.B. Responds with “No- No- Nothin' on you Babe...” A great technique to spice things up in an already memorable chorus.


We've gone through a few different genres, analyzing what makes them hits. In the end it always comes down to the melody and how much the chorus can hook the listener. Simplicity can go a long way with creating memorable melodies since you don't need incredible complex chord structures to create a hit song. Additionally, adding interest with fills and contrasting instruments can go a long way with making simple things sound intriguing and more complicated than they really are.

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