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We asked legendary Australian songwriter,
musician, singer, Billy Field
to answer the following question...

Billy Field

May 2008

The Question:
Is there a formula for writing a hit song?

Response by Billy Field share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

If the answer to this million dollar question is "yes" then the number of songwriters who know this elusive formula is relatively few! Apart from the possibility of such a formula there are of course other factors on which writing a hit is hugely dependent such as who sings it, the quality of the recording itself, the marketing, timing and luck among other things.

I might be more qualified to answer the question...
"Is there a formula for writing a good memorable song?" and the simple answer to this is "yes".

If you think "no", how else would you say that Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Bacharach, The Beatles, Elton John, Billy Joel and many others kept writing huge numbers of successful songs for decades?

How to write a good song:- (...& it’s hard to hype an ordinary song into big sales....).....huge books are written on all this stuff but I can tell you Carl Perkins never read them before he wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” or “Hound Dog” etc......
So, the basics are to get the following things right....

  1. Title....memorable and, occurring at the musical hook if possible...generally it’s at the start line of the “A section” or “Chorus” or end line.....keep a list of your title ideas.....our greatest ever Mr. Barry Humphries doesn't go anywhere without a note book.
  2. A “cracker” lyric which generally takes some real brainwork.......it’s best if it's something people will relate to or care about or might want to sing to a partner or even themselves or a “storyline that goes somewhere” so you have to listen on to find out....or something you think needs to be said for the community as in social progress stuff or historical songs ...or is fun...or, ...really, you can say anything you want but above all try and make it truthful or believable, memorable (perhaps helped with metaphors) and make it rhyme. Also, “great songs are re-written not just written”.
  3. The melody is very important and best if it’s well “constructed” and by that I mean “has a big enough range of notes to make it interesting and tuneful but not too big to sing (ie say, one octave and about a 3rd, 4th or 5th). Also good if it has, very memorable figures “you sing whilst you are making a piece of toast” and include, a good and a continuous melody for the whole song. Some “pop masterpieces” have hardly one or two beats “un sung” in the whole song. (eg the whole 32 bar song of A + A + B + A sections). Another important general rule is, if it is hypothetically a fairly typical AABA + AABA type of song, do not resolve the melody until the end of the 2nd A sect, the bridge & 3rd A section. It’s good if the first A section melody can resolve to the dominant 7th. It’s good too if tempo of melody is different in the Bridge and also good if you change the key for it, but change back to original key for the A section that follows it.
  4. The “song” must be well constructed....e.g. you can’t win with 10 totally different melodic sections end on end or, by repeating the identical 4 bars monotonously for 6 mins. The tried & true “construction styles” (called forms) are all dependent on tempo. Generally if tempo is very slow sections can’t have say 16 bars as it takes too long to remember & to get to “repeating”, especially so with “the hook lines”. Sections are generally 8, 12 or 16 bars but it really doesn’t matter.....off hand I think Alfie is 13 bars & say something else 9 or 11 bars. Generally with songs the section construction is, firstly, “a one Chorus song” repeated 4 or 5 times & each section is 12 or 16 bars eg Blue Suede Shoes or secondly, “a Verse + Chorus song” repeated 3 or 4 times & each section is 8, 12 or 16 bars eg Jonnie B Goode or lastly, as with the traditional greatest of songs, an “AABA SONG” with A sect (with first ending) + A (with 2nd ending) + B (called the Bridge) + A (with 2nd ending) and then all or part of this is repeated once if it is not a ballad.

    Go for it....it’s fun..and perhaps one day we will see your name up in lights at a big Rooty Hill club gig or somewhere! .....but don’t have any illusions as nowadays you will have to pay for your beers!!

© 2008 Billy Field

Check out Billy Field's Paradise Recording Studio

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