How to Write an Earworm

In the days of AM radio, when songs were under three minutes long, there were a variety of sequences of songs played—repeatedly—which were generally described by the disc jockey as being the “top 10.” It was never entirely clear what the number described (i.e., top 10 of what?).

But it should be noted that while there was undoubtedly the whiff of something shady (to mix a couple of metaphors), radio station managers knew that they had to be exceedingly careful because of Congressional investigations into so-called “payola” in 1960, which even caused comment by then-president Dwight Eisenhower, who considered this to be an issue of public morality.

Which seems a bit too far.

But be that as it may, the FCC established a law that says, in part, “When a broadcast station transmits any matter for which money, service, or other valuable consideration is paid or promised to, or charged or accepted by such station, the station, at the time of the broadcast, must announce: (1) that such matter is sponsored, paid for, or furnished, either in whole or in part; and (2) by whom or on whose behalf such consideration was supplied.

In other words, the issue was (and conceivably still is) that the station (or more likely the DJ who was getting swag and whatnot from the A&R man repping the label and musician) would play a given cut over and over and over again. The effect would,  presumably, be one of an excessive number of listeners buying into the ad populum fallacy: if it is being played that much it must be good.

Or there is another thing that could have come into play: the Ohrwurm phenomenon. The earworm. The hearing a song “in your head.” A song “stuck” in your head.

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Googling “how to write a hit song” results in 386,000,000 results.

According to Robin Frederick, who operates mysoundcoach.com,

“Here’s the simple skeleton structure on which most hits are built

  • VERSE / CHORUS
  • VERSE / CHORUS
  • BRIDGE / CHORUS”

Ms. Frederick goes on to explain, “Those monster radio hits often add a section between the verse and chorus called the pre-chorus. It’s used to build anticipation and excitement leading up to those huge hooky choruses. Pop/Dance hits will sometimes have a section after the chorus called a post-chorus. This is where the music producer gets to show off his or her chops.”

Got it?

The chorus counts.

Some might be thinking, “What’s with using Robin Frederick, author of books including The 30-Minute Songwriter, Song Starters, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, and Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, rather than, say, Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song?”

Simple. It is fairly obvious that Ms. Frederick is focusing on the masses and consequently knows more about what is likely to become a hit, about something that would be played over and over and over again: Let’s face it, one of the only Wilco songs that might have made it on Top 40 radio is “Heavy Metal Drummer” and there is certainly a nod to that kind of music embedded in the lyrics: who do you think Paul Stanley would have been more influenced by, Verse/Chorus, Verse/Chorus, Bridge/Chorus, or the guy who wrote “Many songwriters have aspired to be Bob Dylan, including me”? C’mon, how many monster radio hits has Dylan had?

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Writing a hit song isn’t as simple as it might seem. In fact, the person sitting down in a garret with quill in hand writing out the lyrics or at an out-of-tune piano in a dingy basement probably isn’t the case for those who want to create an earworm-worthy hit.

Case in point: Hit-making songstress, Katy Perry.

Looking at the number of people writing many of her songs there is the following:

Three songs, one writer

Twenty-two songs, two writers

Seventeen songs, three writers

Twenty-two songs, four writers

Twenty-two songs, five writers

Four songs, six writers

One song, seven writers

Three songs, nine writers

One song, eleven writers*

Not all of these songs, of course, were hits. But that’s not for lack of effort.

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Here’s something to think about. While the numbers vary, it seems that Lennon and McCartney wrote some 190 songs that have the “Lennon and McCartney” signature. Arguably if not all of them are top 10 hits, most of them are songs that you’ve heard more than once, heavy rotation or not. Every single one of these is a potential–or let’s say “probable”–earworm. (Consider this: while Lennon and McCartney had reasonable post-Beatle careers, there is no song that either of them did post-band that has more earworm actuality than “Hey Jude,” which is fitting to the extent that it is known to be a McCartney composition about Lennon’s son.)

Jagger and Richards co-signed nearly as many songs, more along the lines of about 170. What is fascinating is that looked at in an alphabetical list, it is hard to find a letter that does not have a familiar song starting with it (A = “Angie”; B = “Beast of Burden”; C = “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”; D = “Dancing with Mr. D”; E = “Emotional Rescue”; F = “Factory Girl”; G = “Get Off of My Cloud”; H = “Honky Tonk Women”; I = “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)”; J = “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; L = “Lady Jane”; M = “Midnight Rambler”; N = “No Expectations”; O = “One Hit (To the Body)”; P = “Parachute Woman”; [No Q]; R = “Rip This Joint”; S = “Salt of the Earth”; T = “Tell Me”; U = “Under My Thumb”; V = “Ventilator Blues”; W = “Wild Horses”; [No X]; Y = “You Got the Silver”; [No Z]).

So is it the case that whereas back in the day of the Beatles and the Stones a pair of people were sufficient but nowadays in order to get that right chorus it takes a whole lot more people?

Earworms are real.

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*The song requiring 11 writers is “Smile,” as it appears on the vinyl edition of the album of the same name. This version the song “features Diddy.” So counted among the number of writers is Sean Combs (and Cordae and Dunston). The song “Smile” as it appears on the non-vinyl version has nine writers (sans Combs, Cordae and Dunston).

2 thoughts on “How to Write an Earworm”

  1. I don’t get why it takes a team of people to write a song. I also never understood why it would take Tom Petty hours or sometimes days to write a song. I get the idea of needing help with the music, if one is not musically inclined. But the actual words shouldn’t take a whole team. Nor should it take hours or days to write. I’ve been writing for close to 30 years and have gotten better over time. When I am inspired, I can write something really fast and rapidly. And I can sometimes knock out a bunch in a matter of an hour. Not that all of them are great, but a good portion of them are. Maybe it’s just me, but I never found writing to be all that hard. If it’s not coming out then I quit and don’t go back to it. I find overanalyzing or overworking words doesn’t end up with good results.

  2. Can an earworm be created through editing? Consider the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five,” from the first jazz album to go platinum, “Time Out,” which was released in late 1959 and reached #2 on Billboard’s pop chart shortly after. “Take Five” was 5:27 on the album, but was cut to 3 minutes or so for AM radio play, by cutting Joe Morello’s drum solo in the middle. The Quartet’s tenor sax player, Paul Desmond, wrote the piece for Morello to celebrate his adaptation of playing in 5/4 time.

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