Sexy And I Know It
If we look at “Sexy And I Know It” from a pop perspective, the song seems simplistic both in form and lyric, but this is a completely different genre so we have to throw that thinking out. All dance and electronic music is built around 4- and 8-bar modules that sometimes work as the traditional verse, chorus, bridge––but then again, sometimes they don’t. In this song they do, and here’s what the form looks like:
intro | verse | B-section | chorus | verse | B-section | chorus | verse | B-section | chorus
Pretty simple, right? Not exactly. The verse after the second chorus is a hybrid; it’s a little bit of a verse with the song hook (“Sexy and I know it”) thrown in. In a way, you could almost call it a bridge, but only from a lyric standpoint since the underlying musical structure doesn’t change.
This song shows that you can have a hit with a minimum number of elements. As with all electronic music, the rhythm is the most important element, but seldom is it so stripped down throughout the entire song. The song consists of kick drum, the vocal, a repeating synth line and a very few synth and drum fill elements so it is really pared down almost as far as it can be and still work. The arrangement elements are:
• Foundation: kick drum sample
• Rhythm: kick drum, high-hat and repeating synth line
• Pad: none
• Lead: lead vocal
• Fills: various synth sounds and noises
How Production Has Changed
Hit song production has changed immensely from the 16- and 24-track recording days.
Hits today are “less organic.” With so many songs built around beats, loops, sequenced tracks and virtual instruments, the intensity from section to section in a hit is changed by adding or subtracting an instrument or vocal, instead of a live player just playing more dynamically. This has changed the feel of the today’s hits.
Hits today are quantized or “put on the grid.” Back in the days of tape, performances generally weren’t perfect (Steely Dan aside). The track space was limited, and if a player made one flub, many times you lived with the mistakes, and that also helped the songs sound more human or organic.
Effects layering is more sophisticated today. Back in the early days of hit making, the only effects that were available were reverb and delay, and usually only one of each. Today we have a huge array of effects available, and even the most basic native plugin is far more variable than any of the original effects. Plus, effects can be easily automated so they can appear or morph for only a single word or beat, which make the hits of today sound more “slick.”
Currently, most songs have an ending. Before the turn of the century, most hits ended with a fade. Not so today. According to one study, hard endings play better in the digital world, where a fade is more likely to make the listener skip to the next song.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HIT SONGS
After looking at hundreds of hit songs, there is definitely a list of similar characteristics:
• Most hits are short. Songs today average 3:47 in length, which is a lot longer than it used to be, but still an easily digestible bite.
• Most hits have a short intro. The average intro of today’s hit is about 7 1/2 seconds, but it’s always been about getting to the point and that never seems to change.
• Most hits limit the number of arrangement elements that occur at the same time. Most have only three or four, and rarely even five arrangement elements that play simultaneously, but no more.
• The arrangement of most hits develops over the course of the song. Usually it reaches a peak at either the bridge or the last chorus.
• Most hits use the arrangement to keep your interest. There’s always a new element entering or exiting to hold your attention.
• Most hits have either a bridge or arrange a repeating song section to act like a bridge. The latter is an arrangement trick to keep the interest high and the song flowing.
• Virtually all hits are dynamic, with a lot of tension and release, which means a hit changes in intensity. This is usually accomplished through the addition or subtraction of instrument or vocal tracks, but can also occur because of good old-fashioned dynamic playing if real musicians are used.
• There are exceptions to all of these rules. It is rare to find a song that follows these traits exactly. Often what makes a song a hit in the first place is the ability to twist one of these traits into something new.
As you listen to songs in the future, begin to listen to the similarities in song form, arrangement and production, which can be a great help if you’re a songwriter, arranger or producer. The more you know about how hits are made, the more likely you’ll actually create one.
Keep in mind that even though you may not like a song or an artist, it is still worth a listen. Hits are hits for a reason, and they are definitely hard to come by. Each has some sort of magic––as well as some common elements––so something can be learned from every single one.