One of the great things about music is that it is by nature unexpected and unpredictable. Unpack a new record for the first time, and you’re never sure what exactly you’re going to hear – even if you’re familiar with the artist. All you know for certain is that you won’t have heard it before.
As much as music thrills us by keeping us guessing though, there are also certain subjects, melodies, and general vibes that we like to return to over and over again. There are some types of songs, in other words, that simply seem to stick with us as a society. And for indie artists, or emerging groups looking to make a splash, these are worth giving some thought to.
New Expressions of Romance
It goes without saying that many if not most of the best songs ever written are, in fact, love songs. Across genres and over the decades, the love song has never lost its power. But when we’re thinking about the songs that stick with us the most, it’s often the romantic tunes that produce unusual metaphors or new phrases expressing love, devotion, or even heartbreak.
The most recent example that comes to mind is Taylor Swift’s ‘Cardigan,’ in which the singer quite literally compares herself to an old, forgotten cardigan in the course of explaining her appreciation to a partner. Bruno Mars skyrocketed to stardom partly on the strength of a love song titled ‘Grenade.’ And while ‘My Boo” by Usher and Alicia Keys didn’t invent the phrase, it certainly popularized it.
Perhaps the best examples, though, come from John Mayer – who, love him or hate him, has spent more time stamping his heart on his chest than most any other modern artist. In doing so, he’s coined a number of unusual phrases having to do with expressions of love: ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland,’ ‘Love Is A Verb,’ and even Billboard’s pick for Mayer’s best song – ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room.’ These are unusual phrases that make songs just a little more memorable than they would otherwise be, and separate them from legions of other love songs.
There’s simply no arguing with this one: Songs that pump us up stick with us. Granted, this is a somewhat more subjective category (whereas it’s pretty much objectively true that ‘Grenade’ is an unusual and thus noticeable title for a love song!). But what we’re really talking about here are the songs everyone seems to add to workout playlists, and that appear in sports promos and on stadium speakers.
There was recently a music survey by Gala Bingo covering “motivational” music that did a pretty good job of identifying what tracks belong in this category. The survey found Eminem and Cardi B are among the most popular artists sought out for motivation, and that tracks like Survivor’s ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ and Foster The People’s ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ stand out. We might also add songs like Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’ and ‘Jungle’ by X Ambassadors and Jamie N Commons. But the point is, if you can write a song that people feel motivated by, it’s going to have some staying power.
The Dominance of Unexpected Pitches
This may sound like an unusual way to classify music. And perhaps it’s not the most technical of descriptions. But the bottom line is that when a decent song also contains particularly noticeable high, low, or just unusual notes, it tends to be extremely catchy.
This has been evidenced in particular by high-singing pop stars throughout history. Look to Paste Magazine’s falsetto rankings, and you’ll find names like Prince, Justin Timberlake, and Michael Jackson. And that’s to say nothing of Adam Levine, who –– while perhaps not quite the artist the other three are –– has made a regular habit of topping pop charts with one of the highest voices in music.
Unexpected tones’ catchy quality isn’t solely about vocals either, though. From high, playful melodies like that of ‘A-Punk’ by Vampire Weekend, to low, funky baselines such as we’ve all heard a thousand times in ‘Feel Good Inc.’ by Gorillaz, pitch that falls outside of ordinary expectations makes a lasting impression.
Most of this conversation has not been genre-specific. But we will briefly point out that for one reason or another, happy hip-hop seems to be particularly catchy, at least with modern audiences.
Artists like Flo Rida, Wix Khalifa, and Kid Cedi have habitually worked upbeat tones into their work with great success. Tracks like ‘Good Life’ by Kanye West and, of course, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell come to mind. It’s a stretch, but the argument can even be made that the Third Eye Blind pop hit ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ is more or less happy hip-hop! And of course, we should once again highlight CPTime’s ‘Home’ – a breath of fresh air we’ve reviewed previously – as well.
In the end, writing something to join the ranks of the mega-hit songs listed above is – of course – much easier imagined than done. Furthermore, the best songs are ones artists are passionate about – not just ones they feel might sell. Even so, it can’t hurt to give some thought to what types of music have become particularly catchy over the years.