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Compose Yourself: How To Write A Top 10 Hit

This series introduces you to composing your own music – top tips to make sure you’re on the right path and helping you overcome any obstacles you face. All of this has been created by television presenter, composer and music educator of 20+ years Richard Mainwaring – find him here on Twitter. This week he tells you the intricacies of how to write a top 10 hit – who wouldn’t want to know that..?
Now is the one of the best times in pop history to stand a chance of writing a big hit!  Really?  What, with all those countless amount of people out there writing songs?
Yes, but they’re all writing roughly the same songs, using the same formulaic techniques.  Here’s composer Richard Mainwaring’s 5 Top Tips to get your song to stand out from the crowd.
On a quick unscientific survey of the most recent Top Ten Chart Hits, I noted the following:  in their respective choruses, almost 7 out of the 10 songs had only one chord change every bar, and 1 song had two chord changes every bar.  So, almost 8 of the 10 songs had completely predictable, regular chord changes.
In that case, how about throwing your chords around a bit more liberally?  Instead of
Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 13.13.22
why not
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Instantly, you’ll have a different sound and feel to your songwriting.
Why do so many songs start without the full drum track?  You get a keyboard supporting an opening vocal line, or a picked guitar, or a rhythmic accompaniment, and then (probably around the chorus), the full drum track kicks in.  Well ,just for a change, why not start with ALL DRUMS?
Now I know that songs need to have a catchy hook to stand a chance of success.  The unspoken theory is that melodies must be really short and memorable because the listening public are a bit simple and can’t remember long melodic lines.
But is that true?  Ask someone to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” or an under-10 to sing “Let It Go” from Frozen – easy!  Now you might not want to write in those particular styles, but the idea that you can only compose melodies which repeat miniscule “soundbites” over-and-over again is nonsense.  Why not try to compose a melody that NEVER repeats small snippets throughout your chorus.  Give it some high and low points in terms of range, usually linked with the most and least important words in your chorus’ lyrics.  Go on, give it a go, it’s quite liberating!
In the current Top Ten choruses, a single melodic idea was repeated anywhere between 4 (perhaps with a slightly altered ending on the last repeat) and 7 times!
Imagine if evolution had given humans 3 legs.  I suspect our music would be very different.  Nothing would have been based around 2 or 4, everyone would have danced in 3 or 6 time, and phrase lengths would have been 3 or 6 bars long!  So, although we’re stuck with 2 and 4, do we have to be slaves to those numbers?  Dare I say it, but why not try making a chord sequence that is 5 or 6 bars long?  With enough skill to smooth it out convincingly, a 5 bar phrase would certainly stand out from the other songs around it.
Want to give your song a whiff of musical sophistication?  Then don’t fall for the classic keyboard trap.  You can often tell non-keyboard songwriters, as their chords are all in root position (the name of the chord is at the bottom of the chord).  In artistic terms, it’s equivalent to painting only in primary colours, and never exploring Cerise, Viridian, or Cyan.
So if you jump from a D minor chord to an A minor chord, don’t do it as if your fingers are in plaster!!
Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 13.13.36Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 13.13.41Instead of leaping from one to the other, look to find the closest notes of an A minor chord around the notes you’ve just played in your D minor chord.  Sophistication for non-keyboard players!

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