Playing tight - getting a feel for good timing
Max... who? Admittedly, this name doesn’t ring a bell for most people. That’s not a coincidence, because Max Martin doesn't like to be in the spotlight. He hardly gives interviews and prefers to spend his time in the studio rather than on the world's stages. But not everything about this man is as simple and humble as it seems. Get this: To this day, Max Martin has been awarded silver 32 times, gold 351 times, platinum 1181 times and diamond 13 times. That is 769,160,782 records sold worldwide. If you dig deeper into his works, you can see that his music accompanies all of our lives. Here is a small (of course incomplete) list of some of his creations:
And the list goes on... And on... And on. We all know his songs. They span decades. But how does Max Martin do it? How can a songwriter produce world hits on an assembly line? And what can we learn from him?
First off: There is no magic formula for a worldwide hit. Max Martin also writes songs that don't become hits. However, commonalities can be seen in his compositions, which I analyzed in the context of my bachelor thesis, and drew from many sources. You should use these rough “guidelines” if you want to write a hit song. They form, what I believe is, the basic framework on which you should build your ideas. I have created the following four “rules” based on an analysis of Max Martin’s hits. They arose from the comparison with “flops” by equally successful artists in order to be able to rule out marketing and fan base advantages as much as possible.
The aim is to set up production in a simple manner. This applies to the number of melody and harmony elements, song sections and the complexity of melody, harmony and rhythm.
In short: the simpler your song, the better. Achieving simplicity without being insignificant is the ultimate discipline of pop songwriting. The song has to be “Catchy.” It should be understood quickly and easily remembered. The more complex it is, the more your listeners have to remember.
Let's look at an example based on a song mentioned above. It is best to listen to it while reading, so that you can hear the simplicity of the melody as well. This is the chorus from “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding:
So love me like you do, lo-lo-love me like you do
Love me like you do, lo-lo-love me like you do
Touch me like you do, to-to-touch me like you do
What are you waiting for?
Practical Tip: When you write a melody, ask yourself how you can make it even easier. When you're writing lyrics, ask yourself which sentence you can cross out. Tell a story with as few words and as little melody as possible. That might sound banal, but it actually requires a great deal of skill.
A pop song needs several melody and harmony elements that bind the listener's attention and are repeated several times within the piece.
As a side note, when I talk about hooks, I don't mean the chorus. This is what “hook” refers to commonly in rap songs. Let me give you a few examples of good hooks:
These elements make the song immediately recognizable—they give it a special identity and make it unique. Ideally your song will have several of these hook elements. Not too many, but two or three very special repeating elements should be just right.
Practical Tip: Identify your hooks. What is it? And where is it? A hook only develops its full potential if it is repeated regularly. So play with your hook and alternate it in different parts of your song. For example, you can indicate a hook in the chorus in the intro of the song.
The entire length of a song is built by combining individual elements as well as by repeating melodies in intensity in order to avoid an exact repetition of song sections and to ensure a constant build-up of tension within the individual sections.
That last sentence offers some room for interpretation, so I would like to go into it again in more detail. Song sections should definitely be repeated. And they should definitely be very similar. But they should not be repeated exactly. Why? An exact repetition of a segment results in a bored listener. That being said, you still shouldn't change too much, because the “Ah yes, I know that” effect should be retained throughout each modified element.
The continuous structure over the length of the song should be done with addition. By that I mean that small pieces should be added, but only small things. Because that creates tension. If a part is modified too much, it creates confusion instead of tension. The reason for the continuous structure of the song is simple: listeners should be kept engaged. They should be fed with new little “treats” so that they don't feel like hitting that “skip” button.
But be careful, this is really about the little things. An additional vocal harmony here, a small shaker there, at most one new additional instrument. Not more. The structure, harmony and melody of the piece must be retained.
Compare the choruses with each other. The first contains “only” the main melody. In the second there is a harmony voice. In the third (the finale) there are even more vocals.
In the verse of this song, Max Martin uses the same trick as he did with Ariana Grande: Harmonies are introduced in the second stanza to make it more interesting compared to the first. This happens in the choruses, too, of course.
Let’s put all of these pieces together, including the last hit component: the structure of the song. I could tell you a lot now about the fact that this structure principle is derived from Hollywood films and books, why it is so successful and why it works so well in many narrative structures. But that would go beyond the scope at this point. The fact is: 99 percent of all Max Martin productions are based on exactly the same structure. And it works as follows:
What are the advantages of this structure?
So: time to sit down at the guitar or the piano and write a new pop song, right? Let's recap what we learned from the clever Swede Max Martin and his hit factory:
You've definitely gotten the urge to try out what you've learned right now, right? But with which producers? And for which project? Of course, a successful production always involves more than one person. Max Martin is known for being a team player. He doesn't write any of his songs alone. The easiest way to create songs and ideas is to do creative ping-pong with like-minded people. And the easiest way to find them is here with us, at mukken.com. We’ve got a community of bands and artists with whom (and for whom) you can write and perform songs.
Originally published on December 19, 2021, updated on March 7, 2023
Main topic: The 10 most valuable songwriting tips