What’s the ingredient to a hit song? A song that is undeniably good, one that hits straight to the heart of the masses and transcends tastemakers and genre sectarians?
If there is any truth to music, it’s that there isn’t one single truth. Music is subjective and what is artistic gold to one listener is trash to the next. But the sales and monetary success of a song is measurable and can by quantified and compared.
There are common trends that can be measured and organized, but these only give a general look into what makes a “hit.” According to The Guardian, ballads are on their way out. Since the 40s, the average tempo of hit songs has been around 117bpm (beats per minute) to 122 bpm and ballads are usually around 90 bpm. Within the list of the top 10 most successful songs of all time, the only song that is not in a major key is “Gold Digger” by Kanye West, according to The Guardian.
As the times change, so does technology and how consumers get their music. With so many options out there these days, artists are struggling to grab the attention of listeners. I imagine this also has an effect on how music is composed—make it more attention grabbing, quicker.
The record industry is not selling as many records as they once did and thus is not making as much money. Major labels can take fewer risks and this breeds an atmosphere of playing it safe; it means having a roster of mainstream artists that create music deemed to be popular for the times. But even with calculated roster changes, multiple co-writers and major promotion, there are still failures. No guarantee can be made for success, no matter how much an artist conforms to the generational trends of popular music.
There are many elements that go into a song striking the right chord with listeners—catchiness, lyrics and soul are major elements, but context plays just as big of a role. The music industry fluctuates with each generation of music listeners. Today, there could be a band perfect for the ‘90s, but their music just doesn’t resonate the same way nowadays. Today, there’s no surefire way a band like the Stone Temple Pilots or Guns N’ Roses could find the extent of success they received in their own time periods.
Still, there are bands like The Beatles and Nirvana who seem to have survived the times.
“But the Beatles are for them (the writer’s children) as uncontroversial as the moon. Just there, shining on. This is strange. Had the same thing been true for our generation – that the pop music that superintended our lives dated from before World War I – it would have been more than strange, bizarre,” Adam Gopnik, American commentator, said on BBC.
But in the Beatles case, it’s clear that after their breakup their fame did not recede; on the contrary, it was maintained and grew.
“Why have they lasted? The reason we usually give is that they reflected their time, were a mirror of a decade, the 60s, that we still long for. But the longer that I have listened to them and the more that their time recedes into history, the more vital they sound,” Gopnik said.
He raises a good point—some music can transcend their time and truly become timeless. How else could Mozart and Beethoven still be household names hundreds of years after their deaths?
The timeless aspect of a song or artist seems to lie in innovation. The more a song pushes the boundaries of production, songwriting format, melody, themes, etc., the more it is a product of the idiosyncratic nature of the artist than of the times. It doesn’t fit into a pocket, but is in its entirely own sphere of originality and uniqueness.
We can only control so much of what makes a hit. There are always going to be the Adele’s, Ed Sheeran’s and The Lumineer’s of a generation who receive mainstream success creating music outside of “what sells.” These artists raise questions as to if there is any formula of success that could really exist.
Ultimately, there is magic to music. Its effect on us can only be tested and measured to a certain extent. Not enough papers and studies could be conducted to fully understand what makes music so special to the human race.