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Cracking the Code of Hit Songs: 5 Key Themes and Stylistic Choices That Show Up “Time After Time”

In this article, ADAM 4 Artists examines five key themes and trends that consistently lead to hit records. For many, the idea of delivering a hit sounds more like a fluke, stroke of luck or the result of divine intervention but, for top songwriters, producers and artists, it is actually a process of knowing what works and repeating the formula from album to album...

Throughout the years, fans have witnessed an infinite number of songs hit the charts and achieve the number one spot. These tracks may vary in genre, artist, and lyrics, but they all have something in common. While there is no simple plug & play formula to delivering a hit record, there are certain thematic and stylistic commonalities that seem to crop up time and time again. In this article, let's examine five of these commonalities and explore some examples of songs that embody them.

Memorable hooks and melodies:

One of the most crucial components of a number one hit is a memorable hook or melody. A catchy chorus or instrumental riff can often be the difference between a song that fades into obscurity and one that dominates the charts for weeks or even months. Examples of songs with memorable hooks and melodies include:

  • "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars

  • "Shape of You" by Ed Sheeran

  • "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee

All of these songs have instantly recognizable hooks that stick in your head long after the track has ended.

Emotional resonance:

Another commonality that we see in many number one hits is emotional resonance. Whether it's a love ballad that tugs at the heartstrings or an upbeat anthem that makes fans feel invincible, songs that strike an emotional chord with listeners are often the ones that rise to the top of the charts. Examples of songs with emotional resonance include:

  • "Hello" by Adele

  • "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston

Both of these hit records are known for their ability to make listeners feel deeply, whether it's through Adele's soulful vocals or Whitney Houston's soaring balladry.

Relatable lyrics:

Songs that feature relatable lyrics are also more likely to hit number one. Whether it's a song about heartbreak, empowerment, or just having a good time, tracks that speak to listeners on a personal level tend to resonate more strongly. Examples of songs with relatable lyrics include:

  • "Stay With Me" by Sam Smith

  • "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor

  • "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor

These records all feature lyrics that are easy to relate to, whether it's Sam Smith's plea for companionship or Meghan Trainor's body-positive anthem.

Production value:

The production value of a song is also a key factor in whether or not it hits number one. A track with polished production, intricate instrumentation, and a well-crafted mix is more likely to catch the ear of listeners and keep them engaged for the duration of the song. Examples of songs with high production value include:

  • "Blinding Lights" by The Weeknd

  • "Can't Stop The Feeling!" by Justin Timberlake

  • "Bad Guy" by Billie Eilish

All three hits feature top-notch production values, from the layered synths and pulsing beats of "Blinding Lights" to the intricate vocal production of "Bad Guy".

Innovative or trendsetting elements:

Finally, songs that feature innovative or trendsetting elements are often the ones that hit number one. Whether it's a new sound, a fresh take on an established genre, or a boundary-pushing production technique, songs that push the boundaries of what is expected in popular music are often the ones that garner the most attention. Examples of songs with innovative or trendsetting elements include:

  • "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus

  • "WAP" by Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion

  • "Box" by Roddy Riich

These three songs dominated the charts, and social media, for their respective periods due to their unique elements. "Old Town Road" seamlessly blended hiphop and country. "WAP" captured the energy of the female empowerment, "hot girl summer" vibe. And "Box", with its unique sound elements, spawned an immeasurable number of memes.

Bonus mention:

With TikTok still being the number one tool for breaking hit records in the 2023, it is important to consider that audience when trying to create hit record buzz, whether it's carefully selecting the catchiest part of the song to upload to the platform, collaborating with top tastemakers to get the word out or simply examining what others "hot" artists do, that you can mimic.


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