The Perfect Pop Song – What Can You Learn From #1 Hitmaker

“There’s nothing but music in the room when you work with Max. No politics, no money, Max just loves making music.” – Adam Levine of Maroon 5

If you pay close attention to the songwriters behind the scenes, I guess you wouldn’t feel strange about the name – Max Martin. Yes, it is him who’s been writing the most widely spread and hummed tunes in the world for the past 20 years! Thanks to the first world exclusive interview with Max Martin by Jan Gradvall, I believe many people who have interests in the evolvement of pop music would feel blessed to have the opportunity to get the most influential advice on how to write a great pop song from the #1 hitmaker.

In the words of the interviewer Jan Gradvall, “Max Martin has seen 58 of his songs place among Billboard’s Top” 10. 21 of them has made it to the #1 spot. Only Paul McCartney and John Lennon have had more. As a producer, Max Martin has had 19 number one Billboard hits. Only Sir George Martin can boast of more.” What does it take to make his creations so magical and keep lingering in many pairs of ears? In his interview, is there something you can learn from and help you become more mature as a songwriter?

The Characteristics A Great Song Better Have

“Well, I can only say what I think. I think that a great pop song should be felt when you hear it. You can hear songs that are technically great, songs that tick all the boxes. But for a song to be felt, you need something else. It’s incredibly important to me that you remember a song right after the first or second time you hear it. That something sticks to you, something that makes you feel: ”I need to hear that song again”. That’s fundamental. Something you want again. And again.”

You must be able to have more than one favorite part in the same composition. First out, you might like the chorus. Then, once you’ve grown a little tired of that, you should long for the bridge… Dagge always said: ‘After just one second, you should be able to recognize the song.’ He brought that way of thinking with him from his days as a DJ. In order to keep people on the dance floor as you switch songs, you should never leave people guessing. You should be able to hear right away what’s coming.”

“There shouldn’t be too much information in the overall sound. I work a lot on getting it all as clear and distinct as possible. There should never be too many new elements introduced at the same time. One at a time. Like in a movie. You can’t introduce ten characters in the first scene. You want to get to know one before you’re ready for the next.”

Suggestions for Co-writing A Song

“Lately, I’ve written a lot of music where there’s already a set background. There’s already a completed track. In those cases, it’s more about working with the dramaturgy of the melody. It should never get repetitive. I like it when a song is like a journey, building up along the way. That they start out smaller than they end. Along the trip, you add elements that make the listener less likely to tire. Then, at the end, euphoria.”

A Method to Test Whether A Song Is Good Enough

“If you listen to the first, second and third chorus of a song, they don’t sound the same. It’s the same melody and all that but what really happens is that the energy changes. It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration.

“When I play a song to someone and ask ”So how do you like this?”, I don’t care all that much about what they say. What I really pay attention to is how they act, their body language. People who lose their concentration give themselves away very quickly. If they start fiddling with their phones as the second verse kicks in, there may be something about the tune that wasn’t good enough. Something also happens when I listen as if with other people’s ears. I get nervous and think to myself, ’Shit, this part is a bit too slow’.”

Songwriting Tricks Between Theories and Experience

“I have lots of theories when it comes to this. If you’ve got a verse with a lot of rhythm, you want to pair it with something that doesn’t. Longer notes. Something that might not start at the same beat. As I say this, I’m afraid it might sound like I’ve got a whole concept figured out…But it’s not like that. The most crucial thing is always how it feels. But the theories are great to have on hand when you get stuck. ’We can’t think of anything, is there anything we could do?’ In those cases, you can bring it in as a tool. If you listen to Shake It Off with Taylor Swift (he hums the verse melody). After that segment, you need a few longer notes in order to take it all in, otherwise it’s simply too much information. If there would have been as many rhythm elements in the part right before the chorus …”

“Sweet and salt might be a description that’s easier to grasp. You need a balance, at all times. If the verse is a bit messy, you need it to be less messy right after. It needs to vary. Shake It Off is a good example, where the math behind the drama is pretty clear. But the melodies themselves, they may appear wherever. It’s never like ’Now I’m going to sit down and write this or that kind of song’. The melodies may show up in the car, in the shower. From then on it’s all about how you manage the melody, how you make sure that you’ll be able to hear it over and over again without tiring of it.”

If the chords change a lot over the course of a song, it’s better to stay within the same melodic structure. Once again, it’s all about the balance. Another theory is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse. For instance, take I Wanna Be Your Lover with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse (he sings like Prince to show his point). Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have! You’ve heard it in the verse. It automatically creates a sense of familiarity. Prince does this a lot. Let’s Go Crazy, same thing. I’ve used this trick a few times myself. In Do You Know (What It Takes) with Robyn for instance.”


Playlist: This Is, Max Martin, Created by Spotify


The Importance of Teamwork

“I feel it’s really important to stress this: The majority of the songs that have brought me here are the results of lots of people helping out. I would like to share the Polar prize with so many people. None mentioned, none forgotten. It’s my collaborations with others that have made me able to stay on beyond the average lifespan of a songwriter. I’ve been blessed to work with so many young people. How do they do it? They make me work hard to keep up. I feel so humbled by this fact. I want to saw the Polar prize into 10 pieces and share it with others.”

“But it’s also about realizing – after having done this (songwriting as teamwork) for such a long time – how important it is to have fun, too. In the beginning, it seemed important to prove stuff. ’I’ll show them. Look at me’. But that whole thing is over and done with since long ago. What drives me today is to make great things and to have fun. I’ve realized that it’s much more enjoyable to do stuff together. Sitting around on your own isn’t all that fun. It’s better to surround yourself with great people. Playing soccer is more fun when you’re playing on a team.”

How to Make it “Pop” At This Moment

“It (the structure of a pop song) keeps changing all the time. We’ve just made it out from the marshlands of EDM. Nothing wrong about EDM, great songs came out of it, but there was a period when everything had to have a pace of ha 128 bpm and be DJ-related. These days, there’s no dominating trend among the Top 40-songs, and I really enjoy that. A hit can be someone just singing to piano music, anything.”

“I recently re-watched an old movie that I used to like when it came out. Now that I watched it over, I felt the movie’s tempo. It all felt a bit slow. They showed the whole trip to the airport. Today it’s more ’Boom!’ and you’re at the airport. The same thing has happened to pop music. There’s less downtime. Pop music follows the evolution of society in general. Everything moves faster. Intros have gotten shorter.

Original Source: Gradvall, Jan. “World Exclusive: Max Martin, #1 Hitmaker.” Di Storytelling

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