It’s funny. So many times over the years I’ve heard people talking about the “secret songwriting formulae,” or how they can discover the “holy grail equation of hits” or come up with great song lyric ideas, etc. Most people, especially those who are purists would say, “Good Luck! Such a formula certainly does not exist...because, if it did then someone would be making hits all the time.” Oh wait...You mean “someone” like Max Martin, Mike Will, Ryan Tedder, MIchael Jackson, Ed Sheeran, Diane Warren, Babyface, Adele, Stevie Wonder, Elton John / Bernie Taupin, Lennon / McCartney...you get the idea.
You’re saying there’s not a method to their madness?!
Well, I’m here to say...that such a formula...at least in my opinion and experience - DOES exist! And it only took me up til I was about 42 years old, having been in the music business for over 20 years, and sweated it out for 4 years at Berklee College of Music, to figure this out.
So here’s a fun little example. Grab a piece of paper. Now, at the top of the paper write the equation below.
_____________ + _____________ + _______________ = HIT SONGS
Below this...write down, draw or even cut out images from magazines etc...of what HIT SONGS would give you. This could be material things like: a dream house, a flashy car, a 10x lifestyle, or more emotional achievements like: taking care of your parents, being able to help others, experiences, prestige, respect, legacy, etc.
OK once you’ve done that, you should have the equation at the top of the page...and all those juicy “great stuff” elements of life that a hit song can bring you below the equation.
Today...I’m going to give you one piece of this equation. I can’t give it all away for free because it’s simply too valuable, it’s part of my secret stuff, and in my opinion it’s worth at least a million bucks and more if applied correctly. And I see all the hit makers using this (regardless if they know they’re doing this or not). (SIGN UP for the course here).
But I’ll give you a taste. Or should we say an appetizer? Let me fill in one of the blank parts of the equation with one of the essential elements of the formula. Ready? Here it is:
UNIQUE / EDGY or EMOTIONAL LYRIC CONCEPT
__________ + ___________+ Unique / Edgy or Emotional Concept = HIT SONGS
Yes, as it turns out...at least in my opinion...“Unique / Edgy or Emotional Concept” is just one of the holy trinities of hit song making. And I guarantee if you go to Billboard.com and check out the Hot 100...pretty much all the Top 10 songs will have that box “ticked off.” From what I’ve observed, time and time again...this works in any decade of time in modern music history.
The idea here behind writing a hit song with a “Unique / Edgy or Emotional Concept” is pretty damn simple. I mean it’s a no brainer. Song lyrics are incredibly vital and important to your career as a songwriter. But you’d be super amazed how many times I’ll get a song turned in to me, a new artist song pitched to me, etc. that doesn’t have this simple concept going for it. In my book...if you don’t have this...you’re kinda dead in your tracks. The same concept here goes for novels, movies, tech startups...you need something that has got that special “thing” to it. The “wow” or “oh shit” factor. You need that element of uncommonness that you haven’t heard of before...that hasn’t been said “quite” that way or from that perspective.
And when I say “Unique / Edgy or Emotional Concept” I also mean “song title.” As a music publisher and record label (and a songwriter!), if you give me 100 songs to listen to, often I can just look at the titles to identify something that’s at least going to be “interesting” or “what’s this about” or “oh, that’s a super cool idea...I gotta hear what that’s about.”
And you can say what you will about the public’s taste...but the public I find is smart, want cool things and even want to be challenged. That’s why so many movies with lame ideas tank at the box office and a low budget / indie film with an amazing concept can go ballistic and come in at #1.
So let me give you some tips and ideas of what I’m talking about. Let’s just start with, oh I don’t know...just Google-ing the biggest songs of 2016, as an example (and by the way this exercise would work for any year or music genre we’re talking about be it 1987, 1965 or 2020 and beyond). Here’s a short list, just sticking to 2016:
What do you notice here? Yah... Words are your friend! I can’t make this shit up! All of these are such delicious concepts and song titles. Like, to me they’re like hot little biscuits that you can just pick up hot out of the oven and pop in your mouth...and they make you sing. In other words these top songs have an “atomic bomb” of a concept and song title.
And if I were to look at these individually...I’d say that there a number of categories the concepts fall into:
Let’s take a look at each of those...and let’s start first with the “metaphor.” And if you just want to jump forward and get the entire secret equation...feel free to jump over here to learn more about a 2 hour course I’ve developed of all my secret stuff. (SIGN UP for the course here).
Let’s get started...
So according to one of the online dictionaries, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.”
So with this in mind, a good example which I think makes a great use of a metaphor is a song like D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli.”
I mean...who would have thought you could have a hit by naming your song after a friggin’ vegetable? Well, I guess D.R.A.M. did, right!? The concept here is basically...making a marijuana metaphor out of the word Broccoli. Duh. But it’s brilliant. I think you would agree that the song would not be as nearly as good, and definitely not a hit if instead the lyric went something like this:
In the middle of the party b*tch get off me
In the cut I'm rolling up my
Ya I know your baby mama fond of me
All she want to do is smoke that
Make sense? It’s just no fun singing “marijuana.” That’s boring! But it IS fun and clever to sing “Broccoli” as a metaphor. Two different flavors going on here. One is normal. The other is unique and smart. OK...what’s next?
I don’t know about you … but I’ve never said, nor ever heard before the phrase “Cake by the Ocean.” And it’s so different and fresh that when it comes up in the song...you just want to join the anthem and shout “CAKE BY THE OCEAN!” To be honest, I’m still not sure what the song is about but….hey, wait a second! According to COMPLEX, the writers, Mattman & Robin reveal that they invented the phrase to refer to the alcoholic beverage, “Sex On The Beach.” The other story is that “Cake” is a sexual innuendo and basically a more clever way to say literally, let’s have “Sex on the Beach.”
A.K.A. New Ways of Saying Something
So, maybe in your life journeys, you have heard someone once say “I took some drugs. It was fun but I ended up in a lonely place. Don’t be like me.” Yah...not so unusual. But to have that emotional sentiment all wrapped up in one line like “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” it becomes something else.
And also, how many people, before this song came out, even knew what Ibiza was (or still don’t know!) (And for those of you who don’t know...Ibiza is a little island off the east coast of Spain. Every summer, Ibiza is the global mecca of electronic and house music partying where a lot of the new big records in the dance genre emerge).
The other take away here is … if I ever hear someone say “I Took a Pill in Ibiza”...I instantly will know what they’re talking about. They’re talking about this Mike Posner song! Why? Because it’s soooo SIGNATURE and this phrase belongs to Mike. He OWNS it. Conversely, someone saying “I took some drugs...don’t be like me” … well, that belongs to no one.
The same thing goes for Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles.” I mean, that’s not something I’ve heard of before, really. Like...I’ve heard the phrase “We’re going to be bigger than the Beatles”...but not “Black Beatles.” I mean from a musical perspective could you really make a bigger claim than to be bigger than The Beatles? But not just in any context...in this case, we’re say Rae and Gucci are the urban / hip hop new version of The Beatles. That big! In hip hop music there’s a lot of lyric writing and concepts touting how “I’m the best.” But let’s be honest, from a musical perspective...you can’t really have anyone top you if you’re the “Black Beatles.”
I always recommend keeping an online document or a “song ideas” diary on you at all times. Whenever inspiration strikes, or someone says something in a conversation that just rings true as a great song concept – write it down! I talk about this further in a recent post on Songwriting Prompts. There are lots of ideas on this post on how to generate great ideas and stockpile them for your future writing sessions (with other people or just yourself!). Just a few ideas besides being struck by inspiration – is just to put in the work. This could be just setting aside an hour and coming up with ideas, writing down terms/slang of the day, looking up hits from say 1974 and seeing if there are any song titles you can “borrow” (if you know what I mean. The key thing I think is to stow these gems and germs of song starts away – and then when you re look at them a week, a month or a year later – you’ll have your pick of the litter as far as potential hit starts that jump off the page for you!
And also a small footnote here…what song title idea should you perhaps – not write down? I would stay way from cliché’s – you know, songs that have been “done” 100, 1000 times over. For instance, some of the most popular song titles – well, been there and done that. Songs like “Angel,” “Crazy,” “I Love You,” ‘I Want You,” “Baby,” “Home,” “I Need You,” “Forever” … you get the idea. Those songs have already been done x 3000 ! Pro tip! You can always search the BMI or ASCAP databases as well, to see how original or not your song title is. If there are pages of entries in the database – maybe dig deeper in your own creativity!
Lastly, we have emotional context. And the best example above is the brilliant song by Lukas Graham. Basically, to me, it’s the modern version of Frank Sinatra’s classic “It Was A Very Good Year” (I highly recommend you checking this one out if you don’t know it already. It’s a song written in 1961, and as I mentioned before in the “secret equation”...these concepts work in every decade, all the time, and never get old. Proof in case!).
OK, where were we...right, Lukas Graham’s “7 Years.” I mean, this is an emotional rollercoaster. The song tells the story a young boy of “7 Years” and his mom telling him how important it is to have friends and family. At “11 years” his father says to make sure to get a good wife, and then when he’s in his 20s and 30s he loses that path and starts chasing career dreams and money, ultimately leading to loneliness. Lastly, in his 60s, he’s comes back to the important things that his Mom and Dad taught him when he was a little kid.
Wow. And this was one of the biggest songs of 2016!!! It just goes to show that people really DO WANT important, well thought, and emotional pieces of work. Which brings me to this point...
To all the people who say (or have the mentality of)...”Oh we gotta dumb down our songs for the general public to have success”...I say to you...look at the above list of hit songs (not just hit songs...but the BIGGEST songs of the year) with great lyrics and concepts. These are not “dumbing” down to reach the most common denominator...Oh no no no no ...these are “smart” songs with amazing lyrics and concepts, that engage the public who (at least I think) want to have tasty and juicy morsels to bite into.
And remember, based off my other post on “Why Your Live Show Sucks Pt.1” ...emotional context can be a sentimental, heartbreaking emotion, or it can be an emotion like, for example...Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” or Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Those songs evoke an EMOTION. In this case, respectively, it’s the emotion of “let’s get pumped up tonight,” and “I’m a fighter and going to kick some ass (with the help of Apollo Creed).”
So yes, based on the above, a song like Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” has emotional context here. To me it’s a charged context of of “we’re going to party tonight...and party on the cheap!”
Now, before I leave, I said something important. That this concept works in all decades. So let’s just grab some inspiration from say, the top songs of, oh I don’t know, my favorite decade for songwriting and songwriters...the 1980s. Yeah!
I’m just “needle dropping” some song titles and my favorite song lyrics here over that special 10 year period...but this is what I came across:
There’s just a handful, but I think you get the idea. In summary – make your song lyrics jump off the page!
So now...as a follow up exercise...here’s a challenge. Take a look at the last 5 songs you’ve written. Do they have that “je ne sais quoi” in regards to a concept?...that “oh shit, I’ve never heard someone say it like THAT before” type of moment?
If yes...you’ve got 1 out of the 3 elements going for you. If not...well now you know whatcha gotta do.
But like I said, it’s really having all three elements in the equation that more often than not begets a hit song.
So, if you’d like to learn this secret sauce, I’m offering a course on this subject...it’s all insider stuff that I’ve never heard anyone talk about in this way before. So if you’re interested pop on over to this link here: (SIGN UP for the course here).
I’ll be going in depth in specific detail on the three elements that power hit songs, ultimately giving you an unfair advantage in the songwriting department. And I’ll also be delving further into song title ideas and how to write lyrics and those special words that can help elevate your career.
See you there and on the charts!