The times may be a-changin’, but the recipe for a Top 40 hit, however, has always remained the same, according to Popular Music Studies professor Robert Toft.
“The musical style has obviously changed greatly over the years, there’s no question about that. But the fundamental building blocks haven’t changed,” Toft said.
It’s all about the arrangement of the song.
Toft recently published Hits and Misses: Crafting Top-40 Singles, 1963-1971. He devotes the chapters of this book to examining a variety of western hits, taking a bottom-up approach to finding out what led to their success.
“You can turn a very good song into a record that doesn’t do well because of a bad arrangement. From the tempo you choose, to the melodic lines, the lyrics, the chord progressions, the instruments, the groove, what’s set up underneath, the way a singer sings the words – all of these aspects have to coalesce together,” Toft explained. “There’s one way to make a hit record and a whole lot of ways to make a bad record, but you can’t point to one specific thing that made a song a specific hit.
“All these ingredients have to gel perfectly.”
Toft cited the Carpenters’ 1970 hit (They Long to Be) Close to You as just one example of the importance of a good arrangement. The song had been recorded multiple times and released nearly a decade earlier (and not just by Dionne Warwick). It didn’t do well until taken up by the Carpenters, climbing to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and staying there for four weeks.
“You can compare three versions (of any song) and see why the final or successful version is the most emotionally fulfilling,” Toft noted, adding it’s hard to point your finger at one specific thing that sets the hit apart.
Toft, who teaches a course called Analysis of Popular Songs, enjoys looking to the past to translate this formula and the skills and technique required to write a successful song to students.
“We tear apart songs and their recorded versions to see what’s made them successful,” he said.
“You have to have good pacing, an expressive flow across the recording, emotional ebb and flow, you still have verses, choruses and a bridge. The fundamental techniques haven’t changed. We take the history of the pop/rock era and use it as examples for students. You can learn a lot from what The Beatles did.”
In essence, things have changed but they haven’t changed, Toft said.
Still, he’s quick to note when it comes to composing a hit, you never know what will be well received by the public. It simply depends on the cultural climate of the day.
“We don’t have any way of predicting (what will be a hit). It’s impossible to tell. You can craft a song as beautifully as you can and expect it to be successful. But it’s hard to predict what people will like and be willing to spend their money on,” Toft said.
“We can teach students the craft, and give them the skills, but we can’t show somebody to write a No. 1 hit. Nobody can do that. You can just give them the tools and techniques and then, it’s up to the individual to combine them,” he added.
Most people don’t know the majority of songs released by record companies never chart, he added. The ones artists and producers expect to be hits often aren’t, and ones not expected to do well soar on the charts.
“It’s hard to predict. It is a hits and misses affair – sometimes you hit, and sometimes you miss.”