Hit Songs Deconstructed - Powerful Analytical Tools for the Music Industry

Hooks, Clever Elements & WOW Factors

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During the first quarter of 2015 (January – March), 20 songs had the distinction of charting within the Top 10 of the Hot 100. They were a diverse group, spanning 5 primary genres and 17 different sub-genre and influencer categories.

Among them are the Funk, Hip Hop/Rap, R&B/Soul influenced mega-hit Uptown Funk, the “wedding ready” Ballad Thinking Out Loud, and the Doo Wop, Hip Hop/Rap, Retro 60s (Girl Group), Rock & Roll (Old School), Reggae, and Soul inflected All About That Bass, to name a few.

Despite their differences, these songs are all meticulously well crafted. And all are primed for maximum impact with their core target demographic, containing a wealth of hooks, clever elements, and wow factors to get the job done.

Our Q1-2015 Top 10 Deconstructed Report explores the what, how, and why behind today’s hits, revealing what makes them so infectious, engaging, and memorable. What follows is a sampling of the many factors and characteristics that are explored throughout the report.

[Header 1 header=”Hooks, Clever Elements & Wow Factors”]

Most of the songs that land in the Top 10 are chock-full of infectious hooks, clever elements, and wow factors that help to put them over-the-top and stand out from their mainstream contemporaries. What follows are just a few noteworthy examples from Q1:

[Header 2 header=”Blank Space“]

  • Instrumental: The song’s primary instrumental hook is xylophone-based. This enables the hook to stand out and resonate with the listener.
  • Instrumental: The pen click that follows “and I’ve got a blank space baby…” and precedes “…and I’ll write your name” is an unexpected element that cleverly jibes with the lyrics and takes the song’s impact to the next level.

[Header 2 header=”Centuries“]

  • Vocal: The infectious and familiar Tom’s Diner sample serves as one of, if not THE defining hook within the song.
  • Vocal: The manner in which the “heavy metal broke my” “HEART” line is constructed is exceptionally infectious and unexpected. Following the lyric “my,” a double snare hit enters the mix, which enables the “Queen” influenced, high-pitched, “HEART” to really stand out and resonate.

[Header 2 header=”Sugar“]

  • Vocal: The falsetto characteristic of Adam Levine’s vocal in the chorus really helps the song’s primary “payoff” to jump out and grab the listener. It also provides stringent, engaging contrast against the song’s other sections.
  • Payoff Within A Payoff: Cleverly sandwiched in between the two “Maroon 5 payoff” stanzas (parts X and Z – “your sugar, yes please…”) is Part Y, which bares a striking resemblance to the middle section of Michael Jackson’s Beat It chorus. Essentially, this functions as a “payoff within a payoff” for the listener.

[Header 1 header=”Engaging Twists”]

The primary role of a bridge is to provide an engaging departure/twist relative to the other sections within a song. This can be achieved via a changeup in the lyrics, vocal melody, backing music, MTI levels (dynamics), or a combination of all four. Any or all of these changeups will take the impact and engagement factor of a song to the next level. What follows are a few notable bridge examples from Q1’s hits:

[Header 2 header=”Animals“]

Following the intense nature of the chorus, the bridge immediately shifts gears by taking on a sparse nature, consisting of drums (toms), a shaker, a low-level droning/rumbling synth, and Levine’s “yo-oh-oh”/“whoa-oh-oh” vocals.

The first half of the section features Levine’s infectious “yo-oh” and “whoa-oh” vocals, which channels the essence of Sting. The second half of the section cleverly revisits the last line within both stanzas of chorus part X, “just like animals, animals like animals-mals.” Note, however, that it’s being sung at a higher pitch and is more processed, which differentiates it from the chorus. This reinforces the title hook within the listener’s head, keeps things fresh and engaging via its contrasting nature, and accentuates the overall vibe of the section as well.

Additionally, notice that the background “hey” vocals from the verse are also reintroduced during the second half of the section. They provide an underlying “tribal” quality, which perfectly jibes with the section’s overall vibe.

Once the vocal transitions over to “just like animals…,” notice that an electronic tambourine enters the mix, which increases the overall momentum of the section. This is followed by the synth becoming more prominent and increasing in pitch, which acts to take the tension level to an apex. Combined, they let listeners know that not only has the “hunt begun,” but the “chase” is now fully on.

At the tail end of the section, the pitch of the synth drastically shoots up and peaks, followed by the backing music coming to a halt, save for some residual ringing. This takes the anticipation level to an apex for a brief moment, which is then followed by Levine’s triumphant “OWWWW!” vocal. This cleverly gives the impression that the predator has caught his prey, without the need to lyrically describe what’s going on.

And therein lies what makes this bridge so special. It heightens the engagement factor of the song via the departure it provides, while at the same time contributing to the overall storyline without having to lyrically describe a thing (i.e. I’m chasing this person, I’m about to get them, got ‘em!). This is what hit songwriting is all about.

[Header 2 header=”Blank Space“]

Following the intense nature of the chorus, an abrupt shift takes place where the MTI level of the song takes a deep dive due to all of the backing music being removed from the mix except for the snare. This allows for the highlight of the section, the repetitive “boys only want love if it’s torture…” vocal to take center stage. To counter the repetition, additional layers of vocal harmony are added throughout, which ultimately puts the section over the top.


[Header 2 header=”Centuries“]

Following the intensity of the chorus, the MTI level plunges during the first half of the bridge primarily due to the guitar and drums being pulled from the mix. It’s kicked back up during the second half with the introduction of claps and prominent thumping bass. Vocally, the lyrics at the beginning and end of each line are infectiously prolonged, which provides pronounced contrast to the preceding chorus. After the bridge, the song goes back into the Tom’s Diner “da,da,da,da” pre-chorus. Notice that the last “da,da,da,da” features a solo Suzanne Vega vocal that brings the MTI level all the way down. This enables the intense nature of the following chorus to slam in with increased perceived impact.

[Header 1 header=”Vocal Types”]

Some of today’s hits are more creative than others in how specific lyrics are sung. In all cases, they provide their respective sections (generally the chorus) with an additional infectious and memorable twist, which helps to put the song over the top:

[Header 3 header=”Repeat Vocals”]

  • Earned It (final chorus): “Girl you’re perfect (girl you’re perfect), you’re always worth it (you’re always worth it)”
  • Shake It Off (verse 2): “I’m dancin’ on my own (dancin’ on my own), I make the moves up as I go (moves up as I go)”
  • Time Of Our Lives (Ne-Yo bridge): “Everybody gon’ do somethin’ (everybody gon’ do somethin’)”

[Header 3 header=”Creative Vocals”]

  • Earned It (chorus): “Girl you ea-ea-ea/ea-earned it”
  • Lay Me Down (chorus): “Next to you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou”
  • Shake It Off (verse sections): “say-ay-ay,” “see-ee-ee,” “know-ow-ow”

[Header 3 header=”Nonsense Vocals”]

  • Earned It (chorus): “Girl you ea-ea-ea/ea-earned it”
  • Centuries (chorus): “hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ya”
  • Love Me Harder (chorus): “whoo-oo-oo…love me, love me, love me, whoo-oo-oo…harder, harder, harder”).

[Header 3 header=”Spoken Vocals (Narration & Plugs)”]

  • Shake It Off: The “hey, hey, hey” portion of the bridge is spoken.
  • Trap Queen: “RGF Productions” and “Remy Boyz, yaaahhhhh” are plugged in the intro.
  • Time Of Our Lives: Pitbull plugs himself (Mr. Worldwide) and Ne-Yo in the intro. Additionally, Pitbull gives an “inspirational speech” following Ne-Yo’s bridge (i.e. “This for anybody going through tough times…”).

These are just a few of the many tricks and techniques hit songwriters employed to propel their songs up the charts in the first quarter of 2015.

To view the full Q1-2015 Hit Songs Deconstructed Top 10 Deconstructed Report, click here.

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