Nine rules of hit songwriting

Mike Caren’s recording facility in West Hollywood consists of six new and decently appointed studios off a main hallway with black-and-white pictures of Atlantic artists hung on the walls. He has been in the business since he was a teenager at Beverly Hills High School. In the old days, he explains, a day in a studio with an engineer cost a minimum of $800—a cost that was usually borne, directly or indirectly, by the artist. If you imagine that a great songwriter might write 250 days a year and produce four or five hits, then the odds for each $800 spin of the roulette wheel were one in fifty. Fire the kitchen staff, put in Pro Tools, and pay an engineer by the hour, and you could use the same casino chip to pay for ten days of recording. That was Caren’s first discovery.

His second discovery was that he could encourage the writing of hits by urging songwriters to follow his nine rules of hit songwriting. While Caren’s rules are not comprehensive or exclusive, it is easy to measure their value by a glance at the dozens of gold and platinum records hanging in his office. He is happy to run down his rules for me. “First, it starts with an expression of ‘Hey,’ ‘Oops,’ ‘Excuse me,'” he begins. “Second is a personal statement: ‘I’m a hustler, baby,’ ‘I wanna love you,’ ‘I need you tonight.’ Third is telling you what to do: ‘Put your hands up,’ ‘Give me all your love,’ ‘Jump.’ Fourth is asking a question: ‘Will you love me tomorrow,’ ‘Where have you been all my life,’ ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up.'”

He takes a deep breath, and rattles off another four rules. “Five is logic,” he says, “which could be counting, or could be spelling or phonetics: ‘1-2-3-4, let the bodies hit the floor,’ or ‘Ca-li-fornia is comp-li-cated,’ those kind of things. Six would be catchphrases that roll off the tip of your tongue because you know them: ‘Never say never,’ ‘Rain on my parade.’ Seven would be what we call stutter, like, ‘D-d-don’t stop the beat,’ but it could also be repetition: ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up.’ Eight is going back to logic again, like hot or cold, heaven or hell, head to toe, all those kind of things.”

The ninth rule of hit songwriting is silence. Why? Because most people who are listening to music are actually doing something else, he explains. They are driving a car, or working out, or dancing, or flirting. Silence gives you time to catch up with the lyrics if you are drunk or stoned. If you are singing along, silence gives you time to breathe. “Michael Jackson, his quote was ‘Silence is the greatest thing an entertainer has,'” Caren continues. “‘I got a feeling,’ space-space-space, ‘Do you believe in life after love,’ space-space-space-space-space.”

Silence. Another rule of hit songwriting is simplicity, he adds, which is learning to say the most with the fewest words. He ticks off his rules on his fingers: expression, questions, commands, repetitions, logic, personal statements, clichés, and space. That makes eight rules. He shrugs.

His favorite example of a song that uses the most rules in the fewest words is a hit by the rapper Ludacris, “What’s Your Fantasy,” which starts off with the lyric “I wanna li-li-li-lick you from your head to your toes.” Caren loves that song. “In the first line: a personal statement, ‘I want to,’ a stutter, repetition, ‘li-lick you,’ logic, ‘from your head to your toes, move from the bed down to the down to the, to the floor,'” he explains. “‘I gotta know’—another personal statement—and asks a question, ‘What’s your fantasy?’ So he’s got six of them, in the first two lines of the song.”

Photo Credit: Derrick Collins/Flickr

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