Online Master's Degree Course

Deconstructing and Writing Hit Songs

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Authored by Bonnie Hayes

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Course Code: OSONG-655

Next Semester
Starts June 28

Level 6 - Degree Only

Level 6

Whether we use the metaphor of architecture, cooking, sewing or gardening, for every process in which we make something, there’s an element of creativity which is added to structural basics that makes the success of the project more likely. In this course, you will learn to analyze specified current and recent hits to determine that structural basis, and apply what you’ve discovered in individual writing assignments. Through these analyses, you’ll create a set of “norms” for pop songs, and understand the extent to which those norms can be adjusted and which elements should be varied. You’ll learn to toggle back and forth between “writer” and “editor” functions, through giving and receiving specific, detailed critical feedback as well as performing numerous revisions of your own work according to your own conclusions. And lastly, you’ll be expected to generate new material that conforms to pop music norms within a certain degree of variation, and works within those norms to support the unique strengths and “voice” of the songwriter. By the end of the course, you will have created at least 10 new song systems. You will also make intentional decisions about which conventions are important for you to adhere to and which can be “relaxed” in your own work. You will gain the maturity to detach from your songs and make the best decision for the song in the market, and you will be able to analyze songs, derive generalizations about current techniques and trends in pop music, and use those generalizations to keep your work relevant and current. 

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By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Understand the difference between a hit song and a hit record
  • Construct a singable, catchy, and memorable chorus melody quickly
  • Identify and generate lyric, melodic, main instrumental part, and production hooks
  • Analyze songs both in micro and macro terms, including lyric, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and production elements and in context of market factors
  • Generate songs starting from lyric concept, melody, groove/hook, or chord set
  • Collaborate with songwriters and producers to generate songs
  • Identify and synthesize current trends in songwriting and production
  • Apply techniques for writing commercial songs in varying degrees to attain different results based upon genre and personal preference
  • Hear and apply critical feedback to your own work
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors Request Info

Syllabus

Lesson 1: The Lay of the Land: Context for Improving Our Songs

  • What is a Hit?
  • Tools Not Rules: Hit Song Paradigms
  • Hit Record Paradigms
  • Defining Genre
  • Types of Hits
  • Assignment: Your Musical DNA

Lesson 2: How to Work: Assume the Position

  • Assume the Position
  • Bursting Your Own Bubble: Developing Objectivity
  • Analyzing Songs
  • Stealing Fire: ‘Ghost Songs’ and Soundalikes
  • Collaboration, Networking, and Research
  • Assignment: Comparative Analysis of Your Best Song

Lesson 3: Hooks

  • What is a Hook?
  • Types of Hooks
  • Writing Hooks
  • Hook Placement Strategies
  • Genre Considerations
  • Case Study: ‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga
  • Assignment: Lyric/Title, Melodic, and Rhythmic Hooks

Lesson 4: Sonic ‘Vibe’ and Main Instrumental Hook

  • Tonality and Emotion
  • What Bach Knew: The Second Melody
  • Seduction: The Intro
  • Elements of Groove: Building Rhythmic Feel
  • Ear Candy and Sonic Fingerprint
  • Case Studies: ‘Attention’ by Charlie Puth, ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X
  • Assignment: Multi-Analysis and Instrumental Single Line Hook

Lesson 5: Primary Vocal Hook

  • Understanding Motifs: The Bones of Hit Melodies
  • Melodic Rhythm: The Secret 
  • Developing and Recycling Motifs
  • Setting a Title: Tools for Emphasis 
  • Tools for Memorability: Rhyme and Repetition
  • Case Studies: ‘Chandelier’ by Sia and ‘Truth Hurts’ by Lizzo
  • Assignment: Melody Analysis and Create a New Melody and Lyric

Lesson 6: Song Form

  • Hit Song Form Standards
  • Verse and Chorus Basics
  • Other Sections: Pre- and Post-Chorus, Development Sections
  • Unusual Forms
  • Creating Clear Sections
  • Case Studies: ‘Blinding Lights’ by the Weeknd and ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ by Gotye
  • Assignment: Form Analysis and Song System Sketch

Lesson 7: Developing the Story

  • Universal Themes, Unique Lyrics
  • Finding Your Song’s North Star
  • Memorable Titles
  • The First Line
  • Building Your Song’s Lexicon
  • Case Studies: ‘Savage’ by Megan Thee Stallion and ‘I Hope’ by Gabby Barrett
  • Assignment: Lyric Analysis and Create a Word List 

Lesson 8: Refining the Chorus and Post-Chorus

  • Chorus Lyric Content
  • Chorus Structures and Title Placement
  • Intensifying Memorability: Rhythm and Rhyme 
  • More Post-Chorus
  • Assignment: Chorus Analysis and Write a New Song Cycle

Lesson 9: Making the Demo

  • The Required Minimum: Vibe, Production, and Performance
  • The Vocal Is Everything
  •  Less Is More: Arranging for Maximum Impact
  •  The Third Act
  • Genre Traps and Copycats
  • Case Study: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana
  • Assignment: One-Song Finished Demo

Lesson 10: Re-Writing

  • Perspective: AB-ing, Feedback, and Time
  • Common Issues in First Drafts
  • The Extra 10 Percent
  • Fatal Flaws
  • Assignment: Song Re-Write

Lesson 11: Applying Commercial Techniques to Artistic Work

  • Originality vs. Accessibility: Chase the Curve or Make It?
  • Genres Outside of the Hot 100
  • Genre-Bending and Genre-Blending
  • Tinkering with the Formula
  • Case Study: ‘You’re Not Alone’ by Dan Wilson
  • Assignment: Two-Genre Demo

Lesson 12: Mind Your Business: Splits, Skills, Career Strategies

  • Follow the Money: Revenue Streams
  • Building a Songwriter Career
  • Publishers, PROs, and Managers
  • Your Artist Career
  • Next Steps

Requirements

Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Completion of Songwriting: MelodySongwriting: Harmony, Arranging for Songwriters: Instrumentation and Production in Songwriting, and Music Production 101 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required.

Students should be able to:

  • Apply music theory concepts such as major and minor scales, chord progressions, etc., to their songwriting analysis and project completion
  • Critically listen to and analyze music examples from different genres
  • Manage instrument(s) that provide(s) harmony, such as guitar or piano, for songwriting purposes
  • Manage a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) of their choice at an intermediate level

Students should have:

  • Ability to create a professional level demo, including vocal produced to pro standards, arrangement/parts played in tune, in time; drum programming, and rough mix
  • Previous songwriting experience
  • Knowledge of Berklee songwriting techniques and tools

Required Textbook(s)

Software Requirements

  • Full-featured DAW such as Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase Pro, Ableton, Studio One, Reason, FL Studio
  • Splice.com subscription
  • Spotify.com subscription

Hardware Requirements

  • Audio interface
  • XLR microphone

After enrolling, please check the Getting Started section of your course for potential deals on required materials. Our Student Deals page also features several discounts you can take advantage of as a current student. Please contact support@online.berklee.edu for any questions.


General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in live chats. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of  Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software (available in the course when joining your first chat)
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal Microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection

Instructors

Bonnie Hayes

Author & Instructor

Bonnie Hayes serves as the chair of Berklee’s Songwriting department. She has more than 35 years of experience as an educator, songwriter, producer, performer, and recording artist. During her career, she has been signed to five record deals and five writing deals, and toured as a side musician with Billy Idol and Cris Williamson. She has written songs for Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Bette Midler, David Crosby, Robert Cray, Adam Ant, and Booker T. & the MG’s, and produced more than 40 records. She designed and implemented the youth program for the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco, and has taught piano, guitar, theory, songwriting, and composition to thousands of students at institutions throughout the US.

Questions?

Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at advisors@online.berklee.edu.

We can also answer basic questions in the comments below. Please note that all comments are public.

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