Hitmakers

You Tell Us: When Is It A Hit?

Hands in the air

Is this how you tell when a song is a hit? When the front row is packed with people throwing up devil horns? iStockphoto hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto

To kick off our Hitmakers series this week, we asked you to tell us how you know a song has gone from popular to solid gold. In comments and emails, some of you told us you could identify the qualities of a hit the second the chords hit your ears. Some of you said you wait until the song shows up everywhere you turn.

This series is going to keep looking at and talking to the people who craft hits or give them the push they need to get from the recording studio to the ears of listeners — who, let's not forget, are an important part of the equation here too. A song isn't a hit if no one responds to it.

All words yours (though we added some emphasis in some places). Keep them coming.

Jesse Dreher (dreher1979) wrote:

Seems to me that most hits are just simple songs sung by a distinct voice that tend to follow current trends of form (ie. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus), texture (all instruments and vocals don't have to be going the whole time), and sound quality (mixing). They are also not very long. 4 1/2 minutes is plenty.

I have also noticed that 4 on the floor drum beats often beat out the rest, and most hits only have about 4 chords. Less is more; you can always tell when someone is TRYING to be creative, and usually those songs don't work out too well.

Lauren DuCharme (Lauren_D91) wrote:

Actually I have always thought hits were kind of a sham. They all seem to have the same patterns and chord changes, they are all short in length and pitch-corrected into a 'perfection' that sounds really dull to me. And most hits have some sort of lyrical gimmick — something that is mildly offensive to some or just ridiculous (think of brushing one's teeth with a bottle of Jack) to get people talking about the song. Boring! Writing a hit must be more of a science than an art, I guess.

Khamani H (TokenT) wrote:

I think a song is a hit when it's catchy, when you hear it on the radio all the time, and when a majority of people talk/know about it.

Rhonda Faraimo (Rondeezee) wrote:

When its got a good melody, a good clause (like a sentence in music), a real soul, and consistency in rhythm and tone. The singer's got to have a good voice, not the best, but distinctive so the listeners can be convinced. As long as it stays true to its material, a hit can be produced for any genre of music out there.

Barry Alfonso (AltonBParker) wrote:

The best measure of whether a song is really a hit if it can be abused and humiliated and still retain its integrity. For example, see what this duo does to this famous tune:

Larry Blisard (PaAce) wrote:

A recording artist knows he has a hit when his wallet is too fat to sit on.

Britta Parten wrote:

A song is a hit when I feel cooler when I listen to it for the very first time.  For the first few listens, I think it must be me ... I am just THAT cool; I was able to recognize uber-coolness instantly.  Then, a week or two later, I realize that everyone I know also loves the song and it is just one of those hit songs that everyone likes.  I'm just one of the masses ...

Chris Thomas King (ChrisThomasKing) wrote:

A hit song on a communal level seems to be a thing of the past. When a song was a hit you heard it on radio, TV, in a cab, in cafe's, clubs, playgrounds, parties, among friends. The song was ubiquitous. But now, what's #1 in billboard is not what's #1 on the playlists of 500 million Facebook users. Culturally we listen individually to our personal top 40 on our ipods. Some hits were "real" and some were "perception" hits due to major label payola. We don't have many now because the Internet is has infinite websites and major labels can't control our ears and eyes. But give them time ...

Judging from the responses to Neda Ulaby's piece on songwriter Makeba Riddick that aired on Thursday on All Things Considered, the disagreement extends beyond which songs should be hits to questions about the value of "hits" as cultural artifacts. Not all of you were impressed with Riddick's efforts to get inside the minds of teenagers. But the debate took a couple of interesting turns. One more comment here, from Ms Hill (MsHill):

As much as I loathe music on the radio you have to give credit to the song writers and producers who can actually manage to make these pop singers stars. You'd be surprised how many of these song writers are educated and trained. You have to be a songwriter and a marketing expert. Say what you want about how anybody can write a pop hit. The fact is most can't and writers like Makeba Riddick whose songs continually top the charts are the real artists behind the music ... not the stars.

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