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Published on April 19th, 2024 | by Dr. Jerry Doby


What Makes a Hit Single Timeless?

You go tell an artist to make you a hit song and he will laugh in your face. There’s no recipe. There’s no magic how-to. Most artists will tell you it takes a good bit of luck. And it would make sense. While music (theory) is pretty logical, even mathematical, making hit songs is not. How is that possible? Well, some things work mysteriously. Or do they? We humans are good at structuring data and reasoning. Surely, we came up with some ideas about what makes a hit single timeless, right? Perhaps. We’re not claiming we have all the secret ingredients, but there seem to be some common threads. But here’s a bit of a disclaimer: You won’t have a secret recipe for making a hit single after reading this. Sorry to disappoint you!

Melody and Lyrics Have a Huge Part (Big Surprise)

Let’s face it, a catchy melody is like the glue of a hit song. You know the kind. Simple, but with a twist. You can’t help but hum along or tap your foot to. If the tune isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how profound the lyrics are. Think about classics like “Hey Jude” or something more recent like “Happy.” You can hardly imagine forgetting those melodies.

But a tune alone won’t cut it. We’re emotional beings, and to become truly timeless, a song has to say something that resonates. It can be about love, loss, joy, rebellion or other big stuff that makes us all human. “Imagine” by John Lennon is a great example. The message of peace is something that’s relevant across generations. Of course, not all timeless hits have to be deep. Sometimes pure fun like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” fills that too.

Some Context (or the Lack of it), Please

Timing and context play a big part. Think about “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song itself is awesome, but it also perfectly captured that early 90s angst and the shift into grunge. Same with disco hits in the 70s or the big hair bands of the 80s. They weren’t necessarily just good. They defined moments in pop culture history. Sometimes, what sticks isn’t completely controlled by the track itself. And if everything aligns perfectly, those songs that were meant for a specific era transform into something timeless.

This one might sound weird, but we think there’s a certain magic in songs that don’t give it all away. Those lyrics that make you kind of lean in and try to figure things out, not everything neatly spelled out for you. They leave room for your own memories and feelings to play a part. What exactly is the deal with the “Hotel California”? We’ll probably debate that forever, and that’s part of why it’s still such a compelling song.

Maybe for that exact reason, some songs fit better as background tracks than others. Video games have successfully used songs that might seem like a random choice. Even some of the slot games with free spins offers at SlotJava and other sites use timeless tracks that might seem odd, but fit perfectly as an accompaniment to spinning the reels. So, sometimes it seems like both good context and a lack of context can be equally successful contributing factors.

…and a Little bit of Magic

Ok, even with all that, there’s still a dash of something special that can’t quite be defined that separates a good hit from a timeless one. It’s like a sprinkle of fairy dust that sets some tracks apart. Maybe it’s a singer with an iconic voice, something unexpected in the production, or just an energy that hits a nerve in just the right way at the right moment. That bit’s hard to manufacture, but you just know it when you hear it.

Now, here’s something interesting. Those enduring qualities can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Sure, a song might have all the right stuff to become part of the soundtrack to our lives, but sometimes precisely because of that, it can get overplayed. Think about a song playing at every wedding for a decade. Eventually, it might start to grate a little. The trick is finding a song that digs in deep enough to become timeless, without becoming completely ubiquitous.

About the Author

Editor-in-Chief of The Hype Magazine, Media and SEO Consultant, Journalist, Ph.D. and retired combat vet. 2023 recipient of The President's Lifetime Achievement Award. Partner at THM Media Group. Member of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, the United States Press Agency and ForbesBLK.

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