How to write the perfect pop song: From getting the hooks right to calling Simon Cowell

Lyricist Don Black has claimed that the key to a successful song is for it to try and say something new about the human condition

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The Independent Culture

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy once sang: "You wanted a hit, but maybe we don't do hits?" It's an approach that few other musicians could afford to emulate. But how do you "do" a hit, anyway?

Boy George once deadpanned that it required nothing more than saturation airplay – and if you've ever spent a day being stalked from car radio to shopping centre to telly by Pharrell's inescapable paean to happiness – you'd be inclined to agree.

But even Motown's hit-creator-in-chief, Lamont Dozier, was unable to nail down his own particular brand of magic, saying "I've written about 78 Top 10 songs, and I still don't know what a hit is. I can only go by what I feel." So what's the secret? Memorable lyrics? Catchy tune? Viral video? Here's what we know:

Timing is everything

According to 2011 data from Billboard, chart-topping songs have got longer over the decades. On average, hits from the Fifties came and went in 2min 36sec, but in the 2010s that had increased to an indulgent 4min 26sec – with the peak coming in 1998 when Oasis's "All Around The World" became the longest song to make No 1: all nine bloated, coke-fuelled minutes and 20 seconds of it.

These days, it's best not to go to town on your intros, though: they should be shorter to cater for the fleeting attention spans of online audiences, reckons Jay Frank, author of Futurehit DNA.

Hooks, hooks, hooks

These are the catchy, earwormy bits that cause involuntary humming, and you need at least five in a song before you're in hit territory – according to Abba's Benny and Bjorn, anyway.

But who needs rules? Nile "I've-sold-100-million-records-and-my-guitar-is-called-the-Hitmaker" Rodgers says : "People have told me that songs shouldn't start with choruses, the chorus should be the payoff of a verse etc.

"Yet, almost every one of my songs starts with a chorus, and many of them were hits." So maybe start with a chorus...

Hire a one-hit wonder

Remember Semisonic? (You know, "Secret Smile"?) Well, Dan "Semisonic" Wilson is responsible for Adele's all-conquering "Someone Like You". Similarly, Joel Pott, of Athlete (that one about wires going in and out), wrote breakout hits for George Ezra, London Grammar and James Bay, while Matt "Aqualung" Hayes went from "Strange and Beautiful" (um, that one) to penning most of Lianne La Havas's debut album.

Across the Atlantic, Linda Perry, who shrieked "What's Going On?" as front-woman of 4 Non Blondes, wrote some of Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani's biggest songs. Alternatively, join a songwriting course with Squeeze's Chris Difford in London: two days, with gin and cake.

Say something new

Famed stage and screen lyricist Don Black has claimed that the key to a successful song is for it to try and say something new about the human condition. That said, the most popular titles for Top-40 songs are, in order: "Angel", "Crazy", "I Believe" and "Stay", accounting for 43 chart entries over time. So from that we can conclude that song writing is inspired by thinking:" I love you/ you're insane/ this can work/ please don't leave me."

Call Cowell

It's easy to forget, among all the pantomime villainy and impossibly high-waisted trousers, but Simon Cowell has had his hirsute hand in more than 70 Top 30 songs. Many of them are forgettable at best (Leon Jackson, anyone?) but it's an impressive empire – a sort of Stax for the pot noodle generation.

He's been gracious in the face of challengers, too: when an internet campaign succeeded in putting Rage Against The Machine in the Christmas No 1 slot, over that year's X Factor puppet, Cowell offered its instigators jobs at his record label.

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