Eight Secret Ingredients to Great Songs

Nobody can guarantee a hit, but these tricks sure help the odds.


Record companies have gotten pretty good at predicting what will be a hit, but it’s not an exact science. Every now and then, pretty pop princesses flop and weird metal or punk bands top the charts. It’s a “mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world,” as the Kinks once sang, and speaking of the Kinks, why weren’t they as big as the Who or the Stones? They certainly had better hooks.

As legions of power-pop bands and fans can attest, it takes more than hooks to have hits, and there are lots of little intangibles that go into truly unforgettable pop songs. After a fair bit of research and three or four deep dives into the darkest recesses of our iTunes libraries, we’ve come up with a list of eight secret ingredients that surface again and again in great tunes. Note: Some are more “secret” than others, and “great” is a term chucked around with wild poptimist abandon. Before you step into the lab, wrap that cynicism in plastic.

Saxophone Solos

Earlier this year, Courtney Love caused a hubbub by hating on Bruce Springsteen. Her beef, she explained, wasn’t so much with the Boss, but rather with his beloved saxophones—instruments that “just don’t belong in rock ‘n’ roll.” Like hell they don’t. Listen to 1951’s “Rocket 88”, arguably the first rock ‘n’ roll song, and you’ll hear 17-year-old tenor terror Raymond Hill rip the rug out from under bandleader Ike Turner and everyone else in the room. Saxophone (and piano) reigned supreme in rock’s early years, and while that loud and phallic electric guitar ultimately thwacked its way into the spotlight, the last 50 years have brought plenty of memorable hits featuring sweet-ass brass solos.

To wit: Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” (1966), Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (1971), David Bowie’s “Young Americans” (1975), Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (1976), the Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend” (1981), Men at Work’s “Overkill” (1983), Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (1984), George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (1986), and just about everything on Destroyer’s light-rocking 2011 gem Kaputt. Outside of ska, swing, and Dave Matthews’ “What Would You Say?”, there wasn’t much in the ‘90s, though. Maybe that’s why Courtney’s not a fan.

Geographical References

Here, you can go big and broad—“England Belongs to Me”, “Empire State of Mind”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “California Love”—or get super specific with streets and landmarks, like the Kinks in “Waterloo Sunset” or Rancid in “Olympia, WA”. Rappers are especially good at this—just try driving through L.A. without crossing a thoroughfare or two mentioned in a Dr. Dre lyric. Whether giving props to their metropolises or romanticizing the chip shop around the corner, artists making geographical references are typically pandering to listeners who hail from their particular postal districts. And, in the rare case of groups like the Beatles and Smiths, they’re mythologizing places that obsessive fans from far afield will later snap photos of during bus tours.

Specific Names in the Title

Oh, Donna, where can she be? Maybe she’s hanging out with Peggy Sue, who ran off with Jimmy Mack in Maybelline’s Coup Deville. They all wound up at Angie’s, where everyone had a ball until Beth showed up with a wicked sob story about some dude in cat makeup who couldn’t come home just then. And so on and so forth. Songs with proper names in their titles and lyrics offer an extra level of emotional resonance for folks who’ve had their hearts busted by, say, a Nikki, an Alison, or a Rhiannon.

The Word “Baby” in the Title

You can’t go wrong with “Baby,” and you can never sing the word too many times. In fact, songs get progressively more awesome the more you repeat it. Witness: Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby”, and TLC’s “Baby, Baby, Baby”. R. Kelly’s hot ‘n’ sweaty ear-humper “Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby” disproves the rule, but even if the tune’s a little weak, give the Pied Piper credit for taking his “baby” game to the next level. It won’t be long before someone one-ups Kells with “Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby,” but until then, let’s all cry and scream along with “Baby, I Love You”, “Baby, I Need Your Loving”, “Be My Baby”, “Blue Jean Baby”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Step into My Office, Baby”, and “… Baby One More Time”.

Spoken-Word Bits

Boys II Men should make a whole album where it’s just that one dude saying stuff like, “Girl, I know you really love me…” That’s the best part of “End of the Road”, just like the “You know, someone said, ‘Life’s a stage…’” bit in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” constitutes one of Elvis’s finest moments. And they don’t all have to be cheesy. That part in Van Halen’s “Panama” when Diamond Dave “can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off of it?” Pure poetry.

Lists and Numbers

One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock. Four, five, six, come on and get yer kicks—it’s a one-, two-, three-, four-, five-, six- seven-day weekend! Songs featuring lists and numbers satisfy that OCD part of our brain that likes order and structure. If there really are “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, that means Lou Bega Jr. has 350 ways to ditch the seven chicks he ticks off in the chorus to “Mambo No. 5”, a silly song he took all the way to No. 3. The Cure didn’t fare quite as well with “Friday I’m in Love”—which climbed to No. 18 in 1992—but Robert Smith does a fine job of listing every day of the week en route to the one he—like the Easybeats—can actually stomach.

Spelling Lessons

Mad r-e-s-p-e-c-t to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin for singing such empowering songs. Props to Desmond Dekker and Queen Latifah for spreading u-n-i-t-y. Had those four formed a band, it’d have been b-a-n-a-n-a-s, which kids everywhere know how to spell thanks to Gwen Stefani. Fellow punk-ska luminary Jesse Michaels might not have understood “caution,” but the Operation Ivy front man could rattle off its seven letters like he’d given the word plenty of thought. Spelled-out lyrics are even more useful if you’ve got an unusual name, like I-g-g-y, S-n-o-o-p, or L-i-y-a-h.

Drums Recorded 45 Years Ago

What do Ice Cube, Sinead O’Connor, and Pizzicato Five have in common? They’re all on the long list of artists who’ve sampled “Funky Drummer”, an instrumental vamp James Brown and his band recorded in Cincinnati on November 20, 1969. The tune features drummer Clyde Stubblefield, who hangs in the pocket without overstepping his bounds. “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother—just keep what you got,” Brown exclaims at one point. “Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother!”

Indeed, it is. While the eight-bar “Funky Drummer” break, which occurs more than five minutes into the track, isn’t exactly a secret—it’s commonly referred to as “the most sampled drum break of all time”—casual listeners might not realize just how many times they’ve heard those snare hits and hi-hats. They show up in Sublime’s “Scarlet Begonias”, Naughty by Nature’s “Hip-Hop Hooray”. Run-D.M.C.’s “Run’s House”, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride”, just to name a few. Even the Fine Young Cannibals have bitten Stubblefield’s beat.