Anatomy of a Hit Song


We all know a hit song when we hear one. But just what goes into making one – well, that gets a little more complicated. At a recent Berkeley Connect in Music small-group discussion, graduate mentor Jamie Apgar asked students what they thought were characteristics of a hit song.

“A hit song is easy to connect with and relatable,” offered one student. Another spoke about the importance of the song being catchy, in both its beat and lyrics. Repetitiveness is also key to a song’s hit potential. Apgar agreed, saying, “It has a visceral effect, and it gets into our bodies and makes us want to move.”

One student noted that electronic synths are very popular right now, and that the type of instrumentation used in hit songs is very era-specific. There was the guitar-centered classic rock of the 1980s, for example, as well as the disco synths of the 1970s.

Students also discussed how pop songs tend to have a very specific structure – the basic verse/chorus/bridge format. Almost all hit songs adhere to this structure, because it makes them easier to memorize.

“What’s the goal of the hit song?” Apgar asked the class. Some students thought a lot of pop songs were built to showcase the voice of the singer. This led to a discussion of the gender politics of female versus male singers: some thought that there were higher expectations in the music industry that women be good singers. “I feel like women are expected to be good singers, and men are expected to be good musicians,” posited one student.

On that note of strong female vocalists, the group took a moment to listen to Adele’s show-stopping hit “Hello.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, students found a lot of the criteria for hit songs they had brainstormed were featured in this song.

“I feel like all the criteria don’t even need to be satisfied because her vocal ability is so dominant,” proclaimed one student. While this may be true, the song does feature repetition, catchiness, and an iconic hook – that is, “that little snippet that makes you stop and listen,” Apgar explained.

Subsequently, the class was able to create a makeshift definition of a hit song – a song with commercial success that you hear everywhere, from the radio to blasting out of your neighbor’s bedroom window. However, commercial success doesn’t necessarily translate to good music. “Pop songs are fairly pleasant musically, but how musically complete they are is up to your opinion,” argued one student. Other students agreed – a lot of the success of hit songs is attributed to hype and slick production.

Hit songs are also targeted towards a very general audience. This is the reality of the music industry – that hit songs must be characterized by marketability. While this can be upsetting to some music lovers, others realize it’s just a fact of life. “If you don’t buy into the economic side of music, you won’t sell anything,” explained one student.

Despite the ubiquity and produced-for-mass-appeal feel of hit songs, students weren’t denying their love for hit songs. And even if one hates a hit song, there’s still a great joy to be found in sharing its terribleness with others. After all, said one student, “Pop music is a community-building experience.”  Proving this point, everyone in the group had an opinion to share about hit songs, no matter what kind of music they usually listen to, play, or create themselves.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant