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Defining & Deconstructing the Characteristics of a Billboard #1 Hit Song

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What is it that makes a Billboard #1 song? Why do some songs make it to the top while others flop?

The answer seems to be a difficult cocktail made up of formulaic songwriting mixed with a few unique ingredients that set a song apart; when blended correctly, it’s capable of hooking millions of listeners.

Let’s look at characteristics of the #1 singles from the 2016 Billboard Hot 100 charts and examine them from a songwriting perspective. What similarities do they have, and how can we incorporate those trends when writing our own songs?

Here are the #1 singles from the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2016 (info courtesy of Billboard).

billboard hot 100 chart 2016

StructureVerses

Most of the above songs begin with either a short intro or the first verse. Both “Hello” and “Sorry” vary slightly, starting out with two verses (rather than one), followed by a chorus, then another verse, and then the second chorus.

Two-Part Pre-Chorus

The majority of the songs have a pre-chorus, but “Love Yourself,” “Pillow Talk,” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” have what feel like two-part pre-choruses. Though the first part of each the respective pre-choruses could be considered part of a verse, or the second part could sort of be part of the chorus, in most cases the melody, harmony, and lyrical content are different enough to make it feel like we have a separate section. Here are the three examples:

love yourself justin bieber lyrics

People often confuse the third section (“my mama don’t like you”) for the first half of the chorus, but I think it qualifies as a second pre-chorus for two reasons:

  1. The melody bears no resemblance to the next section (the chorus).
  2. It does not contain the musical hook (and is not closely related lyrically to the hook).

Following verse three, the chorus is repeated twice without pre-chorus 1 or this section, which leads me to believe that this section is a part of the pre-chorus.

pillowtalk by zayn lyrics

can't stop the feeling by justin timberlake lyricsI might also consider calling the first pre-choruses in “Pillowtalk” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”  post-verse sections — since they don’t necessarily lead directly into their choruses.

Bridges and Breakdowns

The bridges and/or breakdowns of the Billboard #1s tend to be simple and lyrically repetitive.

  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” has an instrumental breakdown with a repeated “can’t stop the —” vamp, which leads smoothly back into the chorus.
  • After Sean Paul does his thing, “Cheap Thrills” simply repeats the second half of the chorus in its bridge.
  • The bridge/breakdown section in “Hello” features Adele repeating “anymore” over back-up vocals.

Outros

Several of the songs end with somewhat new material as an outro, overlaid on the old material. They keep it interesting for the listener all the way until the final bars.

  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” ends with a new line, “got this feeling in my body,” alternating with the “can’t stop the feeling” line from the chorus.
  • “Sorry” ends with the chorus chord progression while Justin Bieber sings “sorry” at the end of every line. At the end of the chorus chord progression, Bieber sings the last line of the chorus.
  • “Cheap Thrills” introduces a new melody on “la la la la la la” which is repeated along with the “cheap thrills” chant from the chorus.

Takeaways

Though the structure of each song is in some way unique, there are definitely some common threads happening here — the structural placement of verses and pre-choruses, the lyrical simplicity in what would either be considered a bridge or a breakdown, and the appearance of some sort of new material in the outro. Try out a few of these techniques in your own music and see if they work!

harmony

Key

The keys of the songs on this list represent a mixed bag of major, minor, and modal key centers. Still, these songs all use the tonic chord in fairly predictable ways, and none of the chord progressions fall very far from the tonic “tree.”

Adele’s “Hello” — F minor (Aeolian)
Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” — C minor (Aeolian, with a strong Ab Lydian pull)
Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” — E major (Ionian)
Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” — B major (Ionian, with a strong E Lydian pull)
Rihanna’s “Work” — C# minor (Dorian)
Desiigner’s “Panda” — E♭ minor (Harmonic minor)
Drake’s “One Dance” — B♭ minor (Aeolian)
Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” — C major (Ionian)
Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” — F# minor (Aeolian)

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Need help with some of those modes? Our free course series Theory for Producers will help you produce electronic music by exploring the theory behind modes (you don’t even need to be able to read music!)

Patterns

Surprisingly, a majority of the songs (“Work,” “Panda,” “One Dance,” “Cheap Thrills,” and “Sorry”) use the same chord progression throughout the entire song, without ever modulating or changing things around. “Sorry” almost follows the same 3-chord pattern throughout, but breaks the pattern for the last line of the chorus to add color and build momentum moving back into the verses.

“Love Yourself,” “Pillowtalk,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” and “Hello,” all change up the chord patterns between sections.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Pop Music Theory Analysis: Why Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ Is Surprisingly Hip”

Non-diatonic chords

“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is the only song with prevalent use of non-diatonic chords (chords outside of the original key). The song is in C major, but the pre-chorus starts with a chord built on the lowered 7th scale degree ( B♭), and also contains an F minor chord, which includes the lowered 6th scale degree ( A♭).

Takeaways

I think a huge reason why so many of these songs don’t actually need to change the chord progression as they move between sections is because they are able to create big enough contrasts in the feel of the music through changes to the melody, the beat, and the electronic production. So don’t ever feel like you HAVE to modulate the key or change up your chords, just to provoke that sense of forward momentum — there are so many effective ways to create contrast.

lyricsTense

Every song is written in present tense and refers to the subject in the second person (addressing them as “you”).

Second person is a common perspective for songs in pop music, because it brings the listener into the narrative effectively, yet there are occasional exceptions: Omi’s “Cheerleader,” which was #1 for 6 weeks in 2015, was written in third person. (He sang about a girl using the pronoun “she.”)

One notable (and hilarious) exception is Desiigner’s “Panda,” wherein the subject of the song — the panda — is in fact a white BMW X6 sports utility vehicle, which Desiigner claims looks like the endangered bear. The song is performed from a first person perspective, and rightly refers to the subject in the third person, as “it.”

Hook Placement

Most of the songs have a lyrical hook that alternates with different lines throughout the chorus (“Love Yourself,” “Work,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” ”Sorry,” and  “Cheap Thrills”).

Sorry lyricsloveyourself lyricssia lyricstimber lyircsrihanna lyrics

Although Rihanna does not repeat the hook, “work, work, work, work, work, work,” after every line, the alternating words have the same rhyme and melody as “work,” giving them a similar feel. I would argue that the hook in this song is more about the repetitive melody and rhythm of the line than the actual word, “work.”

Not all of the songs use the alternating chorus line placement. Here are a few other hook placements in the songs:

  • In “Hello,” the hook “hello” is the first word in every section, both the verses and the chorus.
  • In “One Dance,” the hook is the first line of the chorus.
  • In “Pillowtalk,” the hook is the last line of the chorus (repeated twice). NOTE: Since the word “pillowtalk” is only used once in the song (at the beginning of the second verse), I decided to label “it’s a paradise, and it’s a warzone” as the hook instead. This is the only song on the list where the title is not part of the lyrical hook.

Takeaways

Writing a pop song in second person and present tense is usually a good bet. While you should definitely consider the context of your song when deciding on a hook placement, the alternating lines technique could be a good one to try out.

summaryThough each song that reached #1 on the Billboard 100 chart this year is unique, there are definitely some patterns to take note of if you want to model your songs after them. Here is a quick summary:

  • Begin the song with the verse.
  • If you’re going to have a bridge or breakdown, don’t overcomplicate it.
  • Keep your chord progressions centered around a tonic.
  • Don’t use a unique chord progression for each section if the song doesn’t need it.
  • Use second person perspective and present tense.
  • Use an alternating hook line in the chorus.
  • Include a little bit of new material mixed with old material in the outro.

* This article was updated on August 30th, 2016 to correct the initial analysis of song keys and to keep the songwriting terminology more in line with our course, The New Songwriter’s Workshop.

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Katie Lott
Katie Lott

Katie Lott is a songwriting and voice coach at Modern Songstress, a website providing articles, coaching, and courses to musicians. Katie comes from a background in classical music, with a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition, but now focuses on helping pop musicians understand the music theory behind their songs. Grab Katie's songwriting proofreading checklist to help you review your songs.

  • What would Studs say

    Simple. #1 Find out what the 16yr olds are listening to. #2 Copy the style, perhaps even the beat and vary the lyrics just a bit. #3 Get a greedy promoter who will take most of your money to flog it. Simple.

    • Maggie Britton

      Yes that’s it in a nutshell

  • Nathan

    Hum, I hear “Work” a just B Major, but with the tonic implied. I don’t think that C# is really the root…

    • Ian

      You’ve set off a really good argument in the office. While I definitely hear your point (I mean, C# Dorian is B Major after all), I think my argument is that the C# Dorian is the most useful key when approaching the song. The melody dances around the C#, and then ends on it. The harmony is very modal, not a real harmonic progression that ever explicitly states chords, but the bass line constantly comes back to that C# as the starting note. There’s undoubtedly tension in the C#, but to my admittedly subjective ear, trying to “resolve” it to a B, F#, or G# minor all sound a little foreign to the song. So I’m going to embrace the C# interpretation! But I’m open to other arguments!

    • Hey Nathan, I was part of the argument in the office that Ian mentioned. 🙂 I personally hear it in G# minor, cause I agree the C# doesn’t feel like a root. But when I listen to the whole tune, a bunch of parts (especially the bridge bit and Drake’s melodies) do seem to lean towards B. I love this game of trying to apply mode/scale theory to modern pop music, cause sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes the rules get all slippery…

    • Mahea Lee

      I agree. All the emphasis on the C# in the melody sucked me in at first, but after playing along with it a little, I hear that as a chord tone on the dominant. The harmony itself feels pretty open — I could see the argument for G# minor, C# dorian, and even F#, but ultimately, when the chords are coupled with the melody, I hear the whole thing in a pretty straightforward B major. If that’s the case, it doesn’t resolve at the end. BUT, that makes total sense during that fade out, since that sense of tension is necessary to keep things moving. I guess what I’m saying is good call on the B major, Nathan, haha.

    • Martin Fowler

      i think (especially as a biased bassist) that the general mood of the tune centers so heavily around the dark tone set by the C# minor emphasized on all the significant downbeats, that a C# Dorian modal tonal center is the most important takeaway in terms of studying the songwriting effectively… yes the key signature is in B major and some of the melodic countour might work in a B major context… that’s important too, but it’s fundamentally a modal tune

    • Nathan

      Ok, So this morning when I listened to this, I didn’t have time to listen to the full track and made a quick assessment. So, from the top of the track, B isn’t stated as a tonal center. But, when we get to the bridge it feels very centered in B. So, when I was listening, it felt to me that the beginning was left ambiguous before settling and revealing the tonal center of B with the vocal. Especially the most emphatic part of the track (I hope that this gets to you, I hope that you see this through), feels really centered in B.

      But, after listening again, at the end of the bridge, I do feel my ear wanting a return to a C# center in the vocal. I think the Western Classical part of my brain really wants to have it stay in B though.

      • Ian

        Thanks for the reply, Nathan, and for sparking such a good discussion!

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