Creating a hit song involves skill, timing, marketing, professional recording facilities, industry backing, and of course, a big budget.
Or at least, that’s what was formerly the case.
Today, it seems that hit music is becoming simpler, shorter, less diverse, and maybe even less musical. It’s an easy argument to make, and a convincing one for many.
The ingredients required to make a hit are different from 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 30 years ago.
So, what is the “hit equation”?
What is considered a hit song?
Firstly, we must define what a “hit” really is. In the USA and UK, a single is usually considered a hit if it reaches the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 or the top 75 of the UK Singles Chart. In addition, it has to stay in either one of those charts for at least one week.
This is the definition of a “hit” that the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles has used since the 1970s.
Anywhere in the top-100 or top-75 can reasonably be called a hit, so long as the track sticks around in the charts for less than a day or so!
However, these top charts don’t describe thousands of songs from other charts deemed a hit, nor do they capture the impact of streaming and online listening.
There are genre-specific charts for everything from ambient music to EDM and country music. Spotify even has its own influential Spotify 100.
Is there an equation describing a hit?
Hit music has taken all forms over the years, but similar song structures, tempos, and melodies underlie many hit songs.
But, of course, the rules are made to be broken – the charts have been home to plenty of music that was considered highly experimental at the time.
Today, the charts are dominated by pop music. This is because pop music’s regularized structure, focus on catchy lyrics, simple melodies, beats, and pop-culture themes are a surefire route to creating hit music.
The structure of hit music has varied hugely over the years, from whacky song structures like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to The Stranglers’ Golden Brown and even the early Beatles.
There have been plenty of hits written in odd time signatures, like Genesis’ Turn It On Again, which has a chorus that modulates between 6/4 and 7/4.
However, today, most chart music follows a similar formula, as follows:
Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus. This simple structure has a formula of ABABCB.
The predictability of this song structure helps make a song memorable. Moreover, scientific studies have found that listeners love repetitive music, especially when they can preempt or predict what happens next.
Melody is intrinsic to making a hit as it dictates how catchy the song is alongside the rhythm.
The most widely accepted chord progression is iv-vi-IV-I-V, sometimes written as I-V-vi-IV.
There are many subtle variations of this basic chord progression that have been used in countless hit songs over the years, including:
- Black Eyed Peas – Where is the Love
- Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry
- Journey – Don’t Stop Believing
- Lady Gaga – Paparazzi (chorus)
- Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved (chorus)
- Men at Work – Down Under
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under the Bridge
- Richard Marx – Right Here Waiting
- The Beatles – Let it Be (verse)
- The Rolling Stones – Beast of Burden
- Toto – Africa (chorus)
- U2 – With or Without You
Rhythm, beat, and tempo
You can’t make a melody catchy without a beat to back it up. Modern hit music nearly always needs a chunky bassline, too.
While many songs are now produced with electronic drums, the basic ingredients of the beat are pretty much the same as ever. Most drum beats consist of a bass drum, or kick, a snare drum, cymbals, and toms.
In terms of time signature, it’s pretty rare for hit music to be written in anything other than 4/4.
Again, 4/4 provides a solid backbone to build a catchy, melodic song that people remember and can dance to.
For tempo, an analysis of the BPM of songs uploaded to streaming platforms found that 90 to 99 BPM was the most popular tempo range. Around 18.72% of chart music had a tempo of 90 to 99 BPM, followed by 80 to 89 BPM, at 13.95%.
Hit songs today are becoming shorter and shorter. In fact, the average length of songs that make the Billboard Hot 100 has decreased by around 20 seconds over just five years.
The average hit song is now just 3 minutes and 30 seconds long. Lengthy tunes ranging between 6 and 9 minutes are exceptionally rare.
The shortest Spotify 100 song was XXXTentacion’s Jocelyn Flores, at 1-minute and 59 seconds. Adele’s Hello was amongst the longest, at a rare 4 minutes and 55 seconds.
How has chart music changed over time?
If you glance through the top-selling singles and albums of all time, you’ll find a bit of everything in there.
Modern music barely features, for now at least. In fact, nine out of ten of the best-selling albums were released in the 70s and 80s.
In the 80s, digital instruments and recording technology changed music forever. New technologies unleashed a new sonic palette that saw pianos and guitars replaced by synths and drums replaced by drum machines.
It wasn’t until the 90s that electronic music became mainstream, and the charts became increasingly dominated by modern dance hits and pop music.
Since the rise of electronic music, the rise of streaming and digital downloads has changed how we listen to music. For example, Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You has well over 3 billion streams on Spotify alone.
Today, some top record labels undoubtedly target music for chart success and profitability. However, it might just be that today’s rather cookie-cutter hit DNA is necessary for converting music into money.
How has the music industry changed?
The music industry has changed in recent years, as more artists release music without the backing labels. Macklemore (Thrift Shop) and the Arctic Monkeys (R U Mine?) are two big names who released top-100s songs without a record label.
In 2019, Billie Elish released her hit album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? which was recorded in a bedroom on rudimental gear.
We might be in the midst of an artist-led revolution – a new era of independent artistry and music-making. So, while some perceive the charts as a gloomy depiction of modern music, there could yet be hope.
Summary: The Hit Equation
Simple and effective: that’s the hit equation today. Most chart music is regularized, with similar chord progressions, 4/4 beats, simple song structures, and BPMs between 80 and 99 BPM.
That’s not to say that hit music isn’t still underpinned by creativity, innovation, experimentation, and musicality, but that the target for creating a hit is always on the move.
Also, there are exceptions to the rule. The charts continue to make space for experimental, leftfield, or counterculture music.
But, if you glance through the Spotify 100, you’ll almost definitely notice mutual ground between much of the music there.
If you want to make a hit, look at the charts.