What Makes a Song a Worldwide Phenomenon?
Warning: Listening to the songs referenced in this article is likely to result in an inability to get them out of your brain.
It is an incredible accomplishment for a song to reach the top of one of the Billboard charts. Occasionally, songs connect with listeners sufficiently to retain the #1 position for several weeks. But in rare instances, a song goes beyond being a “hit” and becomes a bona fide international sensation. For writers and publishers, contributing to one of these songs can be tantamount to hitting the proverbial song lottery.
Let’s take a look at some songs that fit into this rarefied category of “super-hits” and explore some of the factors that propelled them to become not just hits, but global phenomena.
Repetition of Melodic Hooks
The overarching common denominator in the mega-hits I studied is the exceptional amount of melodic and rhythmic repetition. This includes: repetition of one- or two-bar melodic motifs; repetition of hooky rhythms; repetition of entire sections, and more. Of course, repetition in and of itself is not sufficient to guarantee a hit. The melodies and rhythms that are repeated need to be exceptionally catchy if they are to become impossible to forget earworms.
In some instances, songs that attained mega-hit stature topped the charts in countries where the language in which the lyric was written is neither widely spoken nor understood. In these cases, success can only be attributed to the music. I am not implying that lyrics are unimportant, but I did not find a common thread among the lyrics of the songs I examined for this article.
“Despacito” (written by Luis Fonsi and Erika Maria Ender and recorded by Luis Fonso, featuring Daddy Yankee, with a remix featuring Justin Bieber) became the first song sung primarily in Spanish to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart since 1996, when this was accomplished by “Macarena” (Bayside Boys’ remix) (written and recorded by Romero Monge Antonio and Rafael Ruiz (aka Los Del Rios). The version of “Despacito” that features Justin Bieber mixed English- and Spanish-language lyrics and catapulted the song to its next level of success. But prior to Bieber’s remix, the song had already reached #1 in 12 countries and the original, Spanish-language version has racked up more than 3 billion views on YouTube.
“Despacito” topped the charts of 47 countries and its accompanying video was the first YouTube video to receive six billion views, making it the most-streamed song worldwide. With its fusion of Latin pop, reggaetón, and urban music, it became the first Latin song to receive a diamond certification for 10 million sales in the U.S. Let’s look at some of the melodic techniques Enders and Fonsi used in “Despacito.”
Each time the title is sung (at the start of each chorus) the tempo slows, adding a beat-and-a-half, and the instruments stop playing, creating a sense of tension and anticipation that makes it extra satisfying when the hook is sung. It is interesting to note the prosody; the tempo slows leading up to the word that translates to “slowly.” Each time the word “despacito” is sung the emphasis is on the third syllable (des-pa-CI-to) which occurs on the downbeat, creating an exceptionally hooky rhythm. This infectious rhythm occurs eight times in the chorus, burning it into the listeners’ brains. This rhythm occurs not only in the chorus, but also in subsequent sections, creating an additional memorable hook.
Against all odds, a cartoon video that accompanies an addictive little ditty about a family of sharks hunting together has amassed more than 4 billion views. “Baby Shark” is based on a campfire singalong song. The version that became a viral sensation was released by South Korean educational entertainment company Pinkfong! and is credited as having been written Min Seok Kim. It has spawned a “Baby Shark Live!” stage production and merchandise including clothing, games, puppets, books, puzzles, plush toys and more.
The melody consists solely of a 4-bar musical phrase that repeats throughout the entire song. The melody established in the first of those four bars includes a hooky rhythm sung on the syllable “do-do-do-do-do-do,” creating an addictive earworm I dare you to forget. This melody, which comprises one musical bar, is heard three times in each 4-bar musical phrase.
The interval between the notes that accompany the syllables of “Ba-by,” “Mom-my,” “Dad-dy” etc. is one musical step from the others. The interval between the second and third notes (“by-Shark,” “my-Shark,” “dy-Shark, etc.)” is one-and-a-half musical steps. This musical phrase is alternately played in two different octaves. The song includes a key change, modulating up one half-step. While the new key is higher, the intervals remain the same. The extreme simplicity of this melody makes it easy for children of all ages to sing. Having the word “shark” fall on the downbeat of every measure establishes yet another memorable hook. The key change and short length (approximately 2 minutes) help to keep listeners’ attention.
With its infectious James Brown-esque groove, “Uptown Funk” (written by Mark Ronson, Jeffrey Bhasker, Devon Gallaspy, Lonnie Simmons, Rudolph Taylor, Nicholaus Joseph Williams, Charlie Wilson, Robert Wilson, Ronnie Wilson, Philip Lawrence II, and Bruno Mars, and recorded by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars) topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 14 weeks, went to #1 in 19 countries, and reached the top-10 in 15 others. Certified 11 times platinum, the song has been viewed more than 3.7 billion times on YouTube.
The recording begins with background vocalists singing a catchy rhythm using the sound “doh—doh-doh-doh—doh-doh-doh—doh-doh” accompanied only by hand claps. This vocal lick returns later in the song and is heard again during the rap section. An exceptionally memorable guitar riff is soon added, creating a second hook before the lead vocal even begins. In the second part of each verse, every line begins with the lyric “Too hot,” sung to the same melody each time it is heard. The lyric and melody of the phrase “Don’t believe me just watch” is repeated 18 times, while “Uptown Funk gon’ give it to you” is heard 26 times. All of this is held together by hooky horn lines, resulting in a nonstop aural feast of melodic hooks that are repeated until they are seared into listeners’ brains.
“Dance Monkey” was written by Toni Watson (aka Tones And I) and recorded by Tones And I. “Dance Monkey” has topped the charts in more than 20 countries and reached the top-10 in many more.
The verse is comprised of four consecutive lines that have almost the identical rhythm. The melody of these first two lines is repeated almost exactly in the next two lines. The first two lines have 11 syllables; the subsequent two lines have 12 syllables.
In the pre-chorus, the first line repeats the melody and accompanying words “SEE you, SEE you, SEE you.” The third line of this section repeats the same melody with the words “MAKE me, MAKE me, MAKE me,” creating an additional hook.
In the chorus, the phrase “dance for me” is heard three times, followed by “oh-oh-oh.” The third line of the chorus reiterates the rhythm and structure of the first line while changing the words to “move for me” and “ayy-ayy-ayy.” The second chorus is doubled, giving its catchy rhythms and melodies an additional opportunity to insinuate itself into listeners’ brains.
The bridge of “Dance Monkey” is comprised of the sound “ooh” sung ten times and “oh” sung repeatedly with the phrase “do it all again” and its accompanying melody.
Every section of this global smash contains multiple melodic and rhythmic hooks that are repeated, making it unforgettable.
Combining country and rap, “Old Town Road” was written by Lil Nas X, Atticus Ross, Kiowa Roukema, and Trent Reznor, and recorded by Lil Nas X, with a version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. It spent a record-breaking nineteen weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart (one week solo, eighteen weeks featuring Billy Ray Cyrus). One or more versions of “Old Town Road” have topped the singles charts in ten countries and charted in the top-10 in almost twenty additional countries.
There are clear reasons why this unusually short (one minute and fifty-three second) song is so memorable. It opens with an easy-to-sing chorus. The first two lines of the chorus (a 2-bar musical phrase) are repeated both musically and lyrically. The subsequent rap sections are built on simple rhythms that are repeated. Like the chorus, the pre-chorus establishes a melody in its first two lines (a 2-bar musical phrase) then repeats those same two lines of melody and lyric.
The entire melody of this mega-hit (other than the rhythms in the rap sections) is encompassed in two 2-bar musical phrases, making it exceptionally easy to remember.
“Meant to Be” (written by Tyler Hubbard, Joshua Miller, Bebe Rexha, and David Garcia and recorded by Bebe Rexha, featuring Florida Georgia Line) debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart where it stayed for an astounding 50 weeks. It peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, was top-10 in more than 10 additional countries, and charted in over 20 more countries. Let’s look at how it used melodic and rhythmic repetition.
The first three lines of each verse share almost the identical melody—encompassed in a one-bar melodic phrase. The pre-chorus begins after only four bars, and also incorporates repetition, with its 1st and 3rd lines having the identical melody. With it taking only 31 seconds to get from the first note of the intro to the chorus, “Don’t bore us—get to the chorus” certainly applies.
In the chorus the word “be” (used in the phrase “If it’s meant to BE, it’ll BE, it’ll BE”) is emphasized 12 times. The middle part of the chorus repeats the lyric “ride with me” along with its accompanying melody, creating another hook, before returning to the melody established in the first part of the chorus.
In all of the above-mentioned examples melodic and rhythmic repetition were used to create melodies that were virtually impossible to forget.
Many hit songs, including those that become global phenomena, incorporate vocal hooks that are sung on nonsense syllables, such as “oh,” “I,” “hey,” “yo,” “ooh,” “na-na,” “la-la,” or a phrase such as “Roma, Roma-ma, Gaga, oh la-la…” in Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (written by Lady Gaga and Nadir Khayat). “Baby Shark” includes “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” 27 times. “Uptown Funk” includes a catchy lick using the sound “doh—doh-doh-doh—doh-doh-doh—doh-doh.” In Ed Sheeran’s mega-smash “Shape of You” (written by John McDaid, Ed Sheeran, Steve Mac, Tameka Cottle, Kandi Burruss, and Kevin Briggs) which reached #1 in thirty-four countries, one of the many hooks is the sung “oh-I-oh-I-oh-I-oh-I” in the post-chorus.
According to David Penn, founder of Hit Songs Deconstructed, in Camila Cabello’s breakthrough hit “Havana” (featuring Young Thug, and written by Cabello, Louis Bell, Adam Feeney, Kaan Gunesberk, Brittany Hazzard, Brian Lee, Ali Tamposi, Jeffery Williams, Pharrell Williams, and Andrew Wotman), Cabello sings the nonsense syllable “na” seventy-five times as part of a variety of vocal hooks.
An Exceptional Video
An outstanding video can also help propel a song to international success. I still recall the first time I saw the video for “Somebody that I Used to Know” written by Luiz Bonfa and Walter De Backer (aka Gotye) and recorded by (Gotye featuring Kimbra). I immediately told friends, “You’ve GOT to see this! The singers transform themselves into works of modern art.” “Somebody that I Used to Know” won three GRAMMY awards including Record of the Year, and reached the #1 spot on the iTunes charts in 46 countries.
All the songs mentioned in this article have terrific videos. It is possible that without the viral video that shows the dance moves that accompany “Baby Shark,” that song might never have reached the prominence to which it rose. The video for “Old Town Road” was GRAMMY-nominated for Best Short Form Music Video. The video that accompanies Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” (written by Swift and Joel Little) was awarded MTV’s 2019 Music Video of the Year and helped the song reach the top-10 in more than 20 countries. The video for Camila Cabello’s mega-hit “Havana” received this award in 2018.
While an exceptional video can direct attention to a song and can make an enormous contribution to its success, the song itself must connect with listeners.
Many of the songs that became super-hits include a “featured” artist, which exposes the song to listeners who might not otherwise have heard it. Examples of this growing trend include: the remix of “Despacito” featuring Justin Bieber; “Meant to Be” which brought together Bebe Rexha with Florida Georgia Line; “Somebody That I Used to Know” with combined the talents of Gotye with Kimbra; and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” that featured Bruno Mars.
An Accompanying Dance
“Macarena” had millions of people throughout the world doing the dance steps that were shown by an illustration in the song’s original video. More than 20 years after its release, the first strains of “Macarena” are sure to fill the dance floors at weddings and other events with DJs. “Who Let the Dogs Out” (written by Anslem Douglas and Osbert Gurley and recorded by Baha Men) has a similar effect.
Part of the appeal of “Baby Shark” are the fun dance moves shown in its video that features two adorable kids demonstrating the easy-to-learn choreography. Everyone from bodybuilders to K-Pop stars to firemen posted videos of themselves doing the dance as part of the “Baby Shark Challenge.” When these videos went viral the popularity of the song skyrocketed.
“Achy Breaky Heart” (written by Don Von Tress and recorded by Billy Ray Cyrus) helped usher in a dance craze that had people line dancing all over the world.
A Tie-In with a Movie
Being part of a movie can help propel a song to a next level of success. “Shallow” (written by Lady Gaga, Andrew Blakemore, Mark Ronson, and Anthony Rossomando, and recorded by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) was featured in the movie A Star is Born. It garnered 4 GRAMMY nominations and an Academy Award for Best Original Song. It spent 45 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, surging to #1 one week after it was performed on the Oscar telecast, and occupying the #1 spot in more than 20 countries.
“My Heart Will Go On” (written by Will Jennings and James Horner, recorded by Celine Dion) from the blockbuster Titanic topped the charts in more than (20) countries, becoming Celine Dion’s signature song. The song was awarded Song of the Year and Record of the Year GRAMMYs and an Academy Award for Best Original Song from a motion picture.
“Let It Go” (written by Kristen Anderson and Robert Lopez, recorded by Idina Menzel for the movie “Frozen,” and Demi Lovato) was certified gold or platinum in ten countries. It won Song of the Year and Record of the Year GRAMMYs and an Academy Award for Best Original Song from a motion picture.
Dolly Parton’s self-written “I Will Always Love You” was a #1 country hit twice, and a duet version of Parton and Vince Gill reached the top-20—before Whitney Houston recorded it for the film The Bodyguard. Whitney Houston’s version spent 14 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history. Similarly, “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (written by Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar) had been a top-10 hit for Lou Rawls and a country hit for Gary Morris. It had been recorded by artists including Kenny Rogers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Roger Whittaker and Sheena Easton, but it catapulted to the stratosphere, becoming a worldwide hit when Bette Midler recorded it for the movie Beaches. It earned a Record of the Year and Song of the Year GRAMMY.
I don’t believe the writers of any of the international sensations mentioned in this article set out to create a song that would be a viral sensation. Nor do I believe there is a magic formula that can catapult our songs to international mega-success. Songs connect with a wide spectrum of listeners for a variety of reasons such as melodic and rhythmic repetition, the lyric, a memorable video, an accompanying dance, the artist, production, a connection with a movie, and more. Write songs you love, carry a lucky charm, look for four-leaf clovers, and hope the stars line up.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, and has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, and the New York Times. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.
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