Anatomy of the Perfect Song: An Abridged History of Manufactured Music

February 12, 2016

The term “perfect” is subjective, but in the world of music production, “perfect” pop songs are the ones that get the most airplay and many of the golden gramophone trophies to be awarded Monday night at the 58th Grammy Awards.

Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Adele are all making return runs at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, up for top awards at “music’s biggest night.”

Although perceived by many fans as solo hit-makers, these artists have bands of silent partners behind them. Swift’s “1989,” nominated for album of the year, is produced by the aptly named “Big Machine Records,” and there are more than 20 names listed alongside hers as nominees in that category.

Top of the Charts, from Tin Pan Alley to Today

The manufacture of hits can be tracked back to the era of Tin Pan Alley. From the late 19th century to the early 20th, the musical commodity of the day was sheet music and artists cranked out piano tunes tailored to the masses.

Karl Miller, an associate professor of music at the University of Virginia, teaches a course on popular music that spans from the Tin Pan Alley era to today.

To make their music as accessible as possible, Tin Pan artists would get highly specific about how to craft the perfect tune.

Charles Harris, author of a hugely popular melody called “After the Ball,” wrote a book in 1906 called “How to Write a Popular Song.” The ingredients were simple. Songs had to have a very narrow range, “because most people sitting at their pianos aren’t trained singers” and won’t have a big vocal range, Miller said. “You want a repetitive chorus that starts with the title of the song,” he said. The chorus should have very few chord changes, to make it easy to play and remember, and the rhyme scheme should have very simple words.

This is the chorus of “After the Ball”

After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball

Popular music themes – then and now – touch on love, fame, money and triumph. Fast forward to today, Miller said, and you will find businesses that scientifically analyze pop hits, including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Miller swung his monitor around and streamed a video from 2013 of Ralph Murphy, the society’s vice president. If you think Charles Harris was specific about the best building blocks for a popular song, listen to this guy. He’s been dissecting the top 100 pop and country songs for years and his attention to detail is submicroscopic.

This is his breakdown of some common characteristics of pop hits in 2011:

  • No. 1 songs on the billboard pop charts were mid- to up-tempo.
  • At least two-thirds of the top pop songs had 100 beats or more per minute.
  • Those records spent two-thirds of the year at No. 1.
  • Seventy-five percent of those songs featured a woman, either as an artist or a featured artist.
  • Women made up only 20 percent of song writers, or eight out of 42.
  • All of the No. 1 hits, except LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” used the pronoun “you” within 20 seconds of the start of the lyrics.

Murphy said the pronoun is “all important” because it immediately engages the listener.

Not surprisingly, today’s hit-makers are paying attention to this bit of wisdom. The word “you” is in the very first line of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” nominated for this year’s Song of the Year. Wiz Khalifa and Justin Bieber take it a step further, putting “you” in their song titles and the early lyrics of their respective nominated songs, “See You Again” and “Where are U Now?”

Who Wrote that Song?

“Back during the Tin Pan Alley days, you would have a song writer and a lyricist breaking down the division of labor,” Miller said. “Now you might have a team that works on the basic rhythm tracks, a team that writes the chorus, a team that comes in and does the arranging of the other instruments, and a team that works on the verse, or the bridge, so it is literally kind of manufactured, moveable parts.”

The manufacture of popular music becomes more deliberate and sophisticated as the years pass. Miller said Motown is a terrific example. In its heyday, the record company was selling more singles than any other record company, introducing to the music world megastars like Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five, The Supremes and Stevie Wonder.

Founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy, “Motown was a song factory,” Miller said. “You’ve got the Funk Brothers laying down the tracks, sometimes before there is even a song to put on it. Then we have the song writers and we have the singers.”

Motown even had its own charm school, led by the oft-described “gracious” Maxine Powell. She would bring in Motown acts like The Marvelettes and Smokey Robinson and teach them how to dance and dress for the brand, Miller said.

The Elusive Hit

Still, Miller said it’s not all paint-by-numbers when it comes to making hits. “Writing a song is incredibly creative. It takes a lot of work and experience to do it,” he said, a challenge only compounded in this age of streaming music from services like Spotify. Producers are searching for new ways to monetize music.

Record labels know 90 percent of the music they produce will not make money, and that puts pressure on the remaining 10 percent, Miller said. So even the people who are best at marketing pop songs fail 90 percent of the time.

“Even they can’t tell what is going to make a hit,” he said.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications