So How Do You Build A Hit Song? Deconstruct!


I had just come to the end of a coaching session with a really talented young songwriter I've been working with for more than a year. She knows her way around classic songwriting and is as big a fan of Elton John and Carole King as she is Taylor Swift and Sam Smith. I love working with her and writers like her because there's nothing jaded about their approach to writing. Everything they can pick up is a revelation. 

The Big Question

Our time was up when she said, "One more do I write a hit?"  

We'd spent lots of hours and sessions on everything from the basics to the intangibles; finding ideas, co-writing etiquette, creating unique melodies and structures, how money is made, how money should be spent...all leading to her simple question.

I told her we would dig in next session and focus just on her question. But before we ended for the day I asked her to do some homework: to deconstruct.

Not just to look at how classic songs are put together, but to intentionally pick a couple of hitsongs a week, tear them apart, and put 'em back together. 

Waaaay Back In The Day

I know for me growing up in the 60's this meant picking up the needle and dropping it down over and over to learn a lick. Balancing a guitar on my lap and trying to figure out how Paul McCartney played "I Saw Her Standing There", how Lennon wrote the lyric for "All You Need Is Love", the chords behind Dylan songs and the language of Motown. Over and over until it got into my being. Just in the hope that I could do it like them someday. 

I don't think I was smart enough to know I was deconstructing in order to learn to build; but looking back, that was the process. I've written a few hits since those days but it's hard to define how I got there.

Back to now. Classic songwriting is still classic songwriting, but so much of the structure and process is different in pop and even country these days. Some people bemoan the short attention span theory that dictates multiple sections that act like choruses, dumping the bridge, post choruses, fewer verses and on and on. I think it's just the same challenges songwriters have always faced as listeners' tastes and habits change. Still have to make something memorable in under 4 minutes. 

Take It Apart

 How do you deconstruct?  Not just by learning to play along, but also by writing down notes in a simple AABABC format and even print out the lyric and study everything about it. The language, the rhyme schemes, cadence. Get it in your head. I would start to hold one of these current hits next to whatever you're writing and see how yours fares.  

Song Sandwich

I even came across an idea that I used to do of sandwiching your song between two current hits. Pick two songs and make a playlist with one of your own in the middle. Be objective. How does yours hold up? The hope is that over time, these forms seep into your subconscious and become tools. Not talking about cloning, but more absorbing and creating new, current influences to go along with your knowledge of the classics.

I love reading about how songs were written. I just finished a book on a flight today called "Hound Dog" by Leiber and Stoller full of great stories about classic hits. Like most of the quotes you come across from hit writers, they learned from what they loved and wrote songs they hoped other people would love just as much. They would also tell you there's no surefire way to write a hit, but deconstructing to construct is a great way to start.

Check out this video by David Penn where he takes you through deconstructing a few hits .


Mark Cawley

Nashville Tennessee

August 27, 2015


Image: Shudderstock


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About Mark Cawley

About Mark Cawley

Mark Cawley is a hit U.S. songwriter and musician who coaches other writers and artists to reach their creative and professional goals. During his decades in the music business he has procured a long list of cuts with legendary artists ranging from Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross to Wynonna Judd, Kathy Mattea, Russ Taff, Paul Carrack, Will Downing, Tom Scott, Billie Piper, Pop Idol winners and The Spice Girls. To date his songs have been on more than 16 million records. Mark’s resume includes hits on the Pop, Country, R&B, Jazz, and Rock charts and several publishing deals with the likes of Virgin, Windswept Pacific, and Steelworks/Universal. Mark calls on his decades of experience in the publishing world, as an artist on major labels, co-writer with everyone from Eliot Kennedy and Burt Bacharach to Simon Climie and Kye Fleming, composing, and recording to mentor clients around the globe with iDoCoach. He is also a judge for the UK Songwriting Contest, Nashville Rising Star, a contributing author to  USA Songwriting, Songwriter Magazine,  Mentor for The Songwriting Academy, sponsor for the ASA, judge for Belmont University's Commercial Music program and West Coast Songwriter events , a popular blogger and, from time to time, conducts his own workshops.Born and raised in Syracuse, NY, Mark has also lived in Boston, L.A., Indianapolis, London, and the last 20 years in Nashville, TN.