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Listeners love a good Pop song and radio loves to play them. Whether you want to pitch your songs to established artists in the Pop field or sing them yourself, writing a contemporary, commercial Pop song with hit-single appeal means writing a song that listeners can identify with and radio will want to play.
Pop = Popular
Today’s Pop music charts and Adult Contemporary charts feature a wide range of song styles and artists – from Kelly Clarkson to Robin Thicke to Ingrid Michaelson to Foo Fighters. So it can be hard to pin down any specific sound as being “pop.”
Basically, a Pop song is one that a lot of people currently enjoy listening to and want to hear again. It’s literally popular. To reach a lot of listeners – to be popular – a song needs to…
- Touch listeners on an emotional level or make them feel like dancing.
- Have an honest, focused message to deliver.
- Do it in a way that moves listeners and keeps them involved and interested.
If a song does these three things, then listeners will usually want to hear it again and that’s what drives a song’s success. Remember, a Pop song is a combination of something you want to say and something listeners want to hear. So, let’s write a Pop song!
Here’s a list of 10 tips with links to more info if you need it. There are four ideas to get started, three tips for building on your song’s foundation, and three tips for rewriting and polishing. Try not to be critical of work in progress. Just let it flow and see what happens.
1, HOW TO START WITH A LYRIC IDEA
Listeners like songs they can understand and identify with. Songs about love relationships (starting up or falling apart), good times, dreams and desires, confronting problems, learning about who we are… these are things that all of us deal with.
Whatever your theme, make sure it’s one you want to write about. Your message will emotionally connect with listeners if you handle it with honesty and insight.
Here’s a fun idea: If you don’t have a theme handy and want to get started writing, you can look for ideas in TV shows and movies. They feature the same kinds of popular themes that work for songs. Just grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and start watching your favorite TV shows.
Once you decide on the basic idea for your song, write out three or four lines that describe who’s involved, what’s happening, and how it feels. Try writing from the point of view of one of the people in the situation. It could be something that happened to you or, if you based your idea on a scene, imagine you’re one of the characters. Most hit Pop songs revolve around the singer or the singer and another person. So use “I” and “you.”
2, HOW TO START WITH A RHYTHM GROOVE
Almost all Pop hits feature a solid, steady rhythm groove. This is how songs connect with listeners in a physical way. A rhythmic groove also expresses the attitude or energy of your song. There are dance grooves, strutting grooves, bluesy grooves, sad grooves, happy ones. Let the groove guide you into your song by suggesting words that match the mood or attitude.
If you play acoustic rhythm guitar, listen to guitar-driven hits by John Mayer, The Script, or Phillip Phillips. Play along with the recording until you can comfortably play the rhythm on your own, then write to it. Or check out the current Top 20 Pop hits or Top 20 Adult Contemporary hits for grooves you can recreate on guitar or keyboard.
If you don’t play an instrument, don’t let that stop you! Try these resources for grooves, chords, and tracks. You pro players can use some of these ideas to get started on a song, then follow up on your own gear.
Once you have a groove, try making a list of short phrases, images, and ideas that the rhythm suggests to you. How does it make you feel? Happy? Sad? Ready for a party? Heartbroken? Yearning? Angry? What kind of situation or relationship does the rhythm suggest? Remember, the music is like underscore for your lyric. Lyric and music need to support each other. Use the lyric writing tips above to get your lyric started.
- HOW TO START WITH A MELODY OR INSTRUMENTAL HOOK
Hearing a melody line in your head but no lyrics yet? You can start right there. The most important thing to remember is that hit song melodies have a mix of repetition and variation that makes them easy to remember but keeps them fresh enough to be interesting.
If you have the first line of a melody, try repeating it for the second line. Then go somewhere else for the third line and come back to your original to wrap it up. You can hear this pattern in the verse melody of “Every Breath You Take” buy the Police.
The next thing to remember is that you’ll need one melody for your verse and another for your chorus. Pop radio hits tend to have powerful chorus melodies that let the singer really stretch out and get emotional. Try going to a higher note range for the chorus and give it a peak note – the highest of the song – before coming back down and resolving at the end.
Here’s a helpful tip: Check out some recent Pop hits that you like and notice the pattern of repetition and variation in the chorus melody. Consider using that pattern in your own chorus. Just notice which melody lines repeat and where, and which lines are different. NOTE: The lyrics will often change even though the melody repeats. It’s a GREAT technique to learn and it will be essential when writing Pop choruses.
Starting with a hook: A cool piano riff or guitar groove has inspired many a hit song. Play around on guitar or keyboard until you find a short phrase that suggests an attitude or feeling. For example, the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” starts with a famous guitar riff that has plenty of character and attitude.
Once you find a phrase you like, try playing it to a rhythm groove and let that suggest the theme and content of the lyric as above.
- HOW TO START WITH A CHORD PROGRESSION
Many hit songs use common, generic three- and four-chord progressions. You’re free to use these chords in songs of your own. Just be sure you don’t use any of the vocal melody or lyrics – only the chords.
You can find the chords to your favorite songs in song books and online. Just search for the name of the song followed by the word “chords.” Look up the chords to one of your favorite Pop songs now and write them down.
Here are a few chord progressions based on recent hit songs to get you started. These are just suggestions. You can change the chords, delete some, rearrange or play them any way you want to.