In Joseph Campbell’s classic book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” he explains that all of history’s most successful stories follow a proven, but invisible framework of the human experience. This mono-myth narrative is composed of 17 stages, from the hero’s call to adventure in the ordinary world, to facing their fears, and the return home. It’s a framework that’s worked for everything from The Bible to Star Wars, and nearly every successful form of entertainment hits those same narrative beats. Campbell claims this experience is imprinted on our collective subconscious, etched from a thousand years of storytelling and culture. We see the same story arc everywhere, but with minor twists to keep things interesting. The names and faces may change, but the stories remain the same. It’s a powerful lesson in how to construct art. This familiarity allows us to connect to the work and interpret it through our own eyes. Let’s look at some ways to integrate Campbell’s findings by examining the brushstrokes, crafting our story, breaking apart the formula, and understanding your own journey and how to apply these findings to your creative process.
When listening to a hit song, we rarely listen closely enough to see the brushstrokes. We don’t know why we love a song, or why an ear worm gets stuck in the brain, but it still happens. Hiding behind every successful song is a supportive backbone that is familiar enough to pull you in, but different enough to keep the listener engaged. We lean towards familiar chord cadences, song structures (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus), and instrument timbres like guitar, piano, and voice, but we crave variation. It all depends upon a delicate ratio of familiarity to novelty. There is no truly original chord progression, melody, or lyric. It’s simply pairing existing ideas in unique ways, like forming words out of the alphabet, and sentences out of words. If every variable in a song were completely unique, it would be unlistenable and un-relatable. Art needs to draw from existing culture to provide meaning to our lives.
The Songwriting Story:
Just like a hit movie depends on hitting the right narrative beats, a song needs to provide clear structure. Structure builds tension, expectation, and incorporates repetition for more memorable songs. Start with a title, build a catchy chorus hook that clearly presents the key phrase, and write verses that paint the scene and perspective. Create pre-choruses that build towards the chorus payoff. Use a bridge to provide a slight departure and refresher to connect the last two choruses, or swap in a pre-chorus instead. Song structure is pounded into our heads every day on pop radio, so take advantage of this infrastructure to build something familiar and effective, but make sure to switch up a few components in a way that serves the song. Every story needs a plot twist. Stand up comedy depends upon a familiar framework and a rhythm to the delivery, but it also relies on punchlines that are slightly unexpected. If you knew all the jokes ahead of time, the show wouldn’t be funny. Even in comedy the rule of three exists with a “comic triple.” A joke is set up with 2 items to create an expected pattern, then violates the third.
The Hit Formula:
Every hit song usually has the raw materials: simplicity, tension / release, and clear structure. Try copying 6 elements from a hit song, and then change the 7th element. Dillon Francis (see “I.D.G.A.F.O.S.”) created his sound by slowing down electro house by 13 BPM, and Kygo took progressive piano house and dropped it 28 BPM (see “It Ain’t Me“. Alan Walker took it further by dropping a massive 38 BPM from the popular tempo w/ “Faded.” All of them simply slowed down the tempo, rather than drastically changing other components. Swap in an unconventional instrument, change the lyrical content, arrangement structure, tempo, key, or rhythm. Copying everything is derivative, but changing one element is clever. Curate your favorite song components, but find unique ways to break violate expectations.
Think of instruments as actors, and their use as their role. For example: a bass line can be the bass, but also a supporting lead (see Jax Jones “You Don’t Know Me”), the background vocals can provide the role of chords, rather than just singing in unison (see Zedd “Stay“) and a kick drum can even shift roles, morphing into a bass line (see Swedish House Mafia “One.”) Dual instrument roles can provide a powerful effect – with more impact and less masking and mix issues. Allow the instruments to take turns and interact with each other, asking “questions” and then providing “answers.” Move your “actors” off-stage for specific sections, and bring them back later in the song. What is your musical “foil” that allows the lead to shine? (btw – the term Foil originally came from jewelers wrapping their gems in foil to make them appear brighter).
Hit records depends on more factors than one person can control. Competition during release week, marketing budgets, politics, and relationships all need to be carefully managed. Armed with a solid framework, a hit is more likely to happen, even though it takes a perfect storm of a million things going right. Radio reps always want to hear the “story” behind a song. They aren’t asking for your bio. They want to know why they should risk their reputation, inventory, and resources on your song. How do you build that story? You need early social proof. Coleman Hell was able to get his self-released song “2 heads” played 10 million times before any label involvement. Eventually radio came calling. The song now has over 90 million plays. Build your story, piece by piece – and eventually you’ll get past the gatekeepers and achieve critical mass. What familiar elements will you copy and what will you change?
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