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Is there a formula for a hit song?

  1. Jul 1, 2011 #1
    While browsing slashdot I found a very interesting story about the science of hit songs and whether there is a formula.

    Here is the study's website

    Here is a neat comedy group playing tons of hits with the same four chords.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 1, 2011 #2
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  4. Jul 1, 2011 #3
    Should I be expecting to see "Ellis & Tom Engelhardt" or "4 chord" on the top billboard in near future?

    One thing I noticed in Ellis & Tom Engelhardt they didn't provide any strong conclusion:
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2011
  5. Jul 1, 2011 #4
  6. Jul 1, 2011 #5


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    Google "four chords and the truth"

    You can get away with an awful lot! In fact, lots of "blues" musicians steal other peoples' work and play minor pentatonic riffs over it to make their own "hits". Carlos Santana did this to Peter Green's "Black Magic Woman". Unfortunately, outside of Boston and a small following in Chicago, not many US kids knew of the original Fleetwood Mac.
  7. Jul 1, 2011 #6


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    I think Harlan Howard called it 3 chords and the truth, but if you want to play blues/rock you probably need one more chord to manage turn-arounds/bridges, etc.
  8. Jul 1, 2011 #7
    Great video (and audio?) It makes me wonder whether lyrics are just as formulaic, if not more blatant.
  9. Jul 1, 2011 #8
    Talk about money, bitches, and have a techno beat. Dont forget the autotune.
  10. Jul 1, 2011 #9
    teen angst
  11. Jul 1, 2011 #10
    Interestingly, I recoil big time from this sort of music, so while there may be a formula for a "hit song" whatever that means, I certainly don't think there's a formula for a "great song" in the terms that I would define such a song. Most of the music on the radio makes me cringe. I prefer music that is "different" (instrumental, avantgarde, psychedelic, experimental, progressive (lol I love that term >.>)) if only because I like to hear things that I haven't heard before. For some reason, I have a lot of patience to listen to music that is strange, but not music that is generic.
  12. Jul 1, 2011 #11
    The lead singer to Weezer, Rivers Cuomo, was on a personal mission to understand the fundamentals behind what makes a song 'catchy' and implement in his music. Playing with the verse, chorus, verse structure, time structure, ect. Even pulling from older classical examples.
  13. Jul 2, 2011 #12
    Hmmm. The tonic, dominant, sub-dominant and sub-mediant (or relative) minor. All founded on a fundamental harmonic relationship discovered by whom? – Pythagoras.

    In point of fact, to those four chords there are only two others that belong in the major key – the supertonic and mediant minors. The triad built on the leading note and using only notes from the scale is necessarily discordant.

    And, as a good example, to suggest that Let It Be is based on four chords is not accurate – they play only the briefest snatch from it – but certainly it is a good example of a great song that has an astonishingly simple chord sequence. The accurate sequence of the verse is

    dominant sus4 to dominant
    sub-mediant minor through dominant to
    sub-dominant seventh
    subdominant sixth

    and the famous four chords in four beats sequence

    tonic first inversion
    super-tonic seventh

    There are those who might argue that the penultimate chord is actually the second inversion of the dominant thirteenth, but that is based on theory that Paul McCartney was almost certainly unaware of.

    One fabulous example of a truly great song that is based entirely and exclusively on those four chords but demonstrates just how powerful and original they can be is Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis.

    I’m not doubting the formulaic nature of the vast majority of ‘hit’ songs, but I absolutely am doubting that you can judge the originality or formulaic nature of a song purely on the simplicity or complexity of its chord sequence. There is a song by Sam Baker called Waves. A large part of what makes it such a good song is the painfully moving lyric. But from the list of chords you can remove the sub-mediant minor – it uses only the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant chords. (It’s in D major so the chords are D, G and A.) Yet from that he fashions music that fits his lyric perfectly. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but one thing it most definitely is not is formulaic. I commend it to you.
  14. Jul 2, 2011 #13
    Turbo, the rule of 3 that I know of, is to repeat everything 3 times. 3 verses, 3 choirs, 3 repeat and fades at the end of the song.
  15. Jul 2, 2011 #14


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    I remember seeing something similar - one of Polish comedians (Jan Kaczmarek) explaining how you need just two chords - C-dur for merry songs and E-mol for sad ones. That was back in seventies.

    Sadly, he died several years ago.
  16. Nov 12, 2011 #15


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    I was thinking about this thread when I heard "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People. Someone doing an intro labeled it an anthem song for the year it came out.

    - album
    - live
    - studio live with acoustic guitar.

    I like the harmony in the chorus and the electric organ.

    I think hit songs have the right combination of lyrics, vocals, harmony, beat, but there are different balances with each hit.
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  17. Nov 12, 2011 #16


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    I wonder how the Beatles managed to nail it over and over again. It wasn't just that they were wildly popular the girls (like Bieber) - they came out with chart-toppers that are still quite popular today. McCartney and Lennon always shared credit for the song-writing, but there was a lot less collaboration in that regard than one might assume from all the credits.
  18. Nov 12, 2011 #17


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    I've said it before: I IV V, that's 80% of western pop music; (number made up)
  19. Nov 12, 2011 #18
    My girlfriend mentioned to me that The Beatles used a popular melodic pattern called "the middle eight."

    She also told me that Paul McCartney could not write musical notation.
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