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What Makes A Popular Song Popular? How To Write a Mainstream Song

What makes a popular song? It is a big question and one that’s been written about endlessly in order to unravel the “formula” for making a world-dominating hit song.

If you examine some of the most popular songs of the past few years, you’ll see that they have several things in common: Intro, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, bridge, middle 8, chorus, etc. come to mind.

Each song has a structure, similar to how you’d follow a structure while writing an essay. If you’ve ever gotten assistance from a US essay writing service, you might have noticed that they follow certain structures to make the essays stand out. While you can examine a song’s structure, melody, production, and things like that easily, for a better understanding of its popularity, you need to look at concepts.

So, What Makes a Great Song?

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Ever wondered why a certain hit record seems to connect with people while others don’t?

If you ask an average person why they like a song, they’ll usually say things like “it has a nice beat” or “I like the sound of it.” Rarely you’ll find song lovers say that they like a particular song because it was cleverly written or the music sounds like it was quite hard to play.

People generally are not interested in that kind of stuff. They simply like the combination of a good melody and lyrics they can relate to, as well as sing along to.

The first rule of great song-writing is to step back from your content and ask yourself — would I still like the song if I had never heard it before? Do I know what the lyrics are about? Also, do I even care what the song is about?

When you look at James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” which was one of the biggest hits in 2005, you’ll see that it’s a very simple song. Perhaps that was the reason behind its immense success? The song is basically about a character who’s imagining a relationship with someone he just encountered. Even from a first listen, the song is memorable.

Now, picture the same track, but with cleverer, cryptic lyrics that only you’d understand. Will a large number of people be able to connect with it, or just you? Now, let’s assume you took the lyrics and sang them with a unique melody over several complex chords in a clever time signature. Will it still be a hit record? Probably no.

In 2007, the song “Umbrella” had a similar impact on a large group of audience. The song has an infectious beat and was built on a very few chords, yet there’s a solid concept behind the track. When you read the lyrics, it may seem like just another “Oh, I love you baby” type song, but if you look closely, you’ll find a very simple hook that hits you the very first time you hear the song. Yes; we’re talking about the “ella–ella–ella–eh–eh–eh” bit. It’s an extremely catchy modern pop moment.

Now, would the song still be a hit without this hook? Probably, yes, because the “hook” sounds like an additional layer to an already great concept. Simply put, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is a solid pop hit even without that gimmick, but as a pop record, the hook puts the track into a whole other league.

To produce a mainstream hit, you must consider what you’re saying in your lyrics. Sometimes, just a good beat or riff isn’t enough. Also, you don’t necessarily need to dumb down your lyrics to get the message across. Try disguising a bit, and you will be adding more depth to your song.

5 Steps to Writing a Mainstream Song

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Writing catchy songs isn’t the hard part, getting them out to the world is. Here’s how you can reach fans who love mainstream music:

Step 1: Make Sure the Lyrics Apply to A Large Group of People

Nickelback was said to have examined pop music extensively. As they dug deeper, they realized something interesting—pop songs have universally applicable messages.

Don’t get us wrong, but not everyone’s been lonely and depressed. Not everyone’s loved or lost. Not everyone’s suffered the death of a loved one or had a heartbreak. And still, we all share the basic underlying emotions. We understand what it is like to love, to be happy, to lose, to be sad, etc. We all have the same base desires and instincts to a large degree. This is what you need to hit upon in your songs.

If you’re referring to specific ideas in your lyrics, chances are it will make it difficult for a larger audience to relate. A well-placed reference can sometimes win over a portion of your target audience, but it won’t be appreciated or understood by everyone hearing your music.

People still listen to songs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Summer of 69,” even if they weren’t born in that decade. Why? Well, at the core, both of these songs share something we all can appreciate—love.

Step 2: Keep the Beat Simple and Repetitive

You have no longer than 30 seconds at most to grab the attention of your audience. It’s funny how so many artists insist on creating epic, overly ambitious intros to their tracks. While there are fans who love these songs, it’s not what mainstream music fans or radio program directors are looking for. Consider saving your long intros for live performances or music videos.

You should start the song off with a BANG! Try to establish the beat, the mood, and the hook of your song. If the hook appears later, consider bringing it to the front. You can put the verse later.

For instance, Taylor Swift’s hit song “Look What You Made Me Do” has a brief intro, then the vocals appear right away. After that, the verse establishes into a pre-chorus bit—this leads into the chorus, and rinse, then repeat. Once the second chorus ends, there’s a bridge section, but it does not stray too far from the already established beat and returns to the main chorus. Therefore, you have:

Verse > Pre-Chorus > Chorus > Verse > Pre-Chorus > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus

You might not be a fan of this song, but it’s a good example of a pop hit that’s simple, repetitive and sticks in your head.

Step 3: Create Melodic Hooks for Your Music

So, you have all the bells and whistles to create a pop song, but you don’t have a hook. No matter how polished the other elements are, without a hook, your song won’t have a soul.

We’ve already mentioned how important these “hooks” are in pop music. If you’re a fan of Marianas Trench, you’re probably familiar with the melodic hooks in their songs. Take the song “Haven’t Had Enough” for example. You’ll see that the chord progression is similar to “California Gurls” by Katy Perry, but with a different rhythm.

The melodic hook sticks in your brain almost immediately. The right combination of melody and lyrics makes it certain that you will remember the track for a long time and want to listen to it again.

Step 4: Keep the Track Less Than Three and a Half Minutes Long

You might already have noticed how formulaic pop songs can be. Well, why wouldn’t they be since it works?

You will not find many popular songs that last longer than 3 and a half minutes. Artists today are perfectly capable of creating a solid statement in just about 3 and a half minutes. You too can make an epic anthem which doesn’t necessarily have a longer playtime.

While it’s true that a lot of us still love longer classic rock songs like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Layla,” chances are these songs wouldn’t make it on mainstream radio in 2019. If your track is under 210 seconds, it’s an instant checkmark.

Step 5: Keep It Simple

If you look at the top 40 music today, they all kind of sound alike, but with few exceptions. It’s like the same track is being sung by 40 different singers, which makes it easier to duplicate what other artists are doing.

Try not to follow what’s popular on the radio now and duplicating it right away. If anything, this will set you behind the curve. Never copy; just listen, take inspiration, and innovate a little.

Here’s a quick summary of how to keep your music simple:

  • Keep your songs less than three and a half minutes long.

  • Stick to familiar formulas.

  • Avoid boring your listeners with long, unnecessary intros.

  • Try not to get too carried away with backing tracks, fancy beats, or progressions.

  • When it comes to layering multiple instruments, don’t stress over it. As long as it sounds good, you’re fine!

  • Stay up-to-date with the latest trends.

  • Don’t be hesitant to add your own flavor to your music.

Wrapping Up

If you made it this far, it’s safe to say that writing a pop song is fairly easy as long as you’re all caught up with the necessary steps mentioned above.

Once you have the song ready, the next step is to get your music out there. You cannot just make music and assume it will be discovered by people. You must learn the business side of it too or at least have someone take care of it.

That said, we hope you found this article helpful. Feel free to share your thoughts and recommendations with us in the comments below.


Eugene Eaton is a blogger in the past and a writer. He spends the majority of the working time creating inspirational content and writes essays on different topics. Personally, he finds inspiration in good music and kind people.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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