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Writing hit songs

Only 306 pages left on your journey to becoming a rock star!

Rule #2: Length & tempo

If you want your song to be played on the radio, then it should be shorter than 3’30 (nowadays 4’30 is also still okay). And if you want your song to get into the singles charts, then you’ll usually need radio play. While cheap pop songs usually fit well into a 3’30 - 4’30 frame, you may feel uncomfortable with that restriction as an artist.

A good solution may then be to produce a shorter version of your song for the radio (therefore often called a radio edit). Your radio edit may be different from your album version, which may be considerably longer (even up to 6 minutes or more). So if you feel that you will not be able to produce a song that’s shorter than 4’30 without having to make artistic compromises, then you may also do two versions. A longer one that you’ll love as an artist, and a shorter one for commercial radio play lists. Do this only if the radio edit won’t be a crippled version though.

On the other hand you should not overestimate the power of radio air play, as nowadays radio is no longer your primary promotional tool anyway. You will focus on social networking later on, which means that you will optimize your song for online services. Consider two important things you’ve learned in the previous chapters:

  1. Today’s radio stations mostly rely on play lists, which means that chances that your self-produced single will be played will be very, very small, unless we’re talking about local stations.
  2. The most powerful tool to promote your music on your own will be your video (YouTube), as well as social media (Facebook, Twitter, …), and here you have no play time limitations.

This means that if you do your video, then the length of your song won’t matter, as there will be no DJ who will want to fade it out because of some stupid predefined play list. People will listen to your song as long as they like – and if your song is great, then it can also be quite long if you want. But there are a few things that are much more important than the total duration of your song.

When people listen to new music, they usually do it for no longer than 30 seconds until they decide if they’ll like it or not.

And if they don’t, then they’ll stop and never listen to it again. If you’re an unknown artist, then people won’t expect anything great at all, which means that you’ll have to convince them within less than 20 seconds that they should continue listening to your song. If you consider this, then you’ll understand that your intro cannot be longer than 5 seconds. It also means that the first seconds of your song must be special, as this is what will make the very first impression. Check out the greatest hits of all times, and you’ll see that they all have very special intros, and you’ll recognize most of them by only listening to the first 3 seconds of the song, or even less. That’s quite impressive by the way.

That’s the kind of intro you should try to create – it should be unique, interesting, and easy to identify.

After your short intro, you will have to offer a verse that instantly catches the attention of the listener, as you’ll have to keep people listening until you either get to the first hook, or to the first chorus. In some cases it may therefore also be a good idea to start with the hook or even with the chorus right after the intro (that would be a CVCVCBCC structure then), especially if you think your verse will be too weak to impress (which will not be a good start anyway).

If your instrumental hook or riff is very cool, then you may also use it to build up an intro that’s quite long of course. A good example may be Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger, a song the band wrote for the movie Rocky III on Sylvester Stallone’s request in 1982. The total length of the song is 4:04 – it starts with a muted guitar in order to build up tension / suspense, the main riff / hook is being played twice after about 9 seconds, at 0:26 the groove is being added with the riff / hook being played twice again, and the vocals finally come in at about 0:48 (verse). Eye Of The Tiger is one of the best-selling songs of all time by the way, with 9.5 million units sold, including over 4.1 million digital downloads. Quite impressive for a song that was released 20 years before Apple first introduced the iTunes store, and yet another great proof that high quality music still sells in the digital age.

No matter what you do, don’t forget that your verse must groove already, as this is the best way to keep people interested, and to make sure they’ll ever make it to the chorus instead of just skipping over to some other song by some other artist. You should come up with your chorus after a maximum of 30-40 seconds, or maybe 40-50 seconds if your verse is very, very cool and groovy. Writing a song is like story telling – if you want it to rock, then it can’t be boring. Please note that some genres allow for longer song durations. Metallica’s Enter Sandman may be a good example for the heavy metal genre, it’s about 5:30 long, it takes about 70 seconds to build up the hook until James Hetfield starts singing, and the chorus only comes after about 100 seconds.

The average tempo of a hit song that may make it into the charts is usually around 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute), probably as this is a good tempo to dance to. Songs that make it into the Top 40 usually have a tempo ranging from 90 BPM (mostly hip hop & R&B) to 140 BPM (up-tempo pop and rock). As your goal will not be to make it into the charts, it can also be faster or slower of course, but in most cases you’ll find yourself in the range of 80 to 150 BPM. There is no perfect tempo for a great song, which means that you may simply have to find the tempo that makes the song feel perfectly right.

The only thing you should avoid is abrupt tempo changes, which means that you will have one single tempo over your entire song, unless you have some really cool idea that works out fine. In some cases the chorus may be a bit faster than the verse to amplify things, or you may even speed up somewhere around the bridge. Be careful with such strange experiments though. Here are some examples of famous song’s BPMs, which clearly show that there’s quite a wide possible range:

  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Rolling Stones: 135 bpm
  • Like A Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan: 96 bpm
  • Respect – Aretha Franklin: 143 bpm
  • Hey Jude – The Beatles: 148 bpm
  • Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys: 152 bpm
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana: 117 bpm
  • Burn To Run – Bruce Springsteen: 144 bpm
  • I Walk The Line – Johnny Cash: 105 bpm
  • Hound Dog – Elvis Presley: 88 bpm
  • Light My Fire – The Doors: 126 bpm

Use your DAW and a click to determine the tempo when writing your songs, and don’t forget to enter the value in the Project Manager on

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Chapter 5.2   •   Page 5 of 20

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