It was an amazing year for karaoke. Not only did Justin Bieber blow the roof off the chart with his performance of “Baby,” but also Miley Cyrus, who graced our screens with her now-famous scream, and even Taylor Swift got in on the action. While 2016 was filled with unforgettable moments, it looks like the singer is preparing for another triumphant return in 2017. Just last week, Bieber posted a video of himself singing along to “Sober” by the 1975—one of the most popular songs on YouTube this week. It’s clear the trend continues: according to popular streaming site, Spotify, the group One Direction is this year’s biggest songbird group with over 150 million streams, followed by BTS and Lady Gaga.
There are several lessons we can learn from 2016’s most streamed-on songs. If we examine their structures, patterns and catchphrases, we can discover some valuable techniques that can help any songwriter perfect their craft.
The Structural Basis Of A Popular Song
“Baby,” the 2016 anthem written and performed by Justin Bieber, is one of the most played songs on our playlist this year. The song perfectly captures the euphoria of unrequited love and takes the form of a slow jam, where singer and songwriter join forces.
“Baby” is one of the best-selling digital singles of all time, with more than 125 million copies sold around the world. It’s also one of the most streamed songs of all time, with over 15 million views on YouTube.
To determine the most streamed song of all time, let’s examine how many times “Baby” was played in the top 10 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart. From this we can see that “Baby” has been streamed 1,387,769 times since its release in August 2016, which makes it the most streamed song of all time.
Looking at the most played songs on our playlist this year, we can see two very distinct types of structure.
- The first type is generally found in older songs. “Rock Me,” the 1995 song by Sade, has been played 1,077 times on our playlist. It follows a similar formula to that of “Baby,” with an introspective verse by Sade and a chorused hook from her band, followed by an outro with an extended guitar solo.
- The other type is exemplified by songs by Kodak Black. His smash hit “Tunnel Vision,” released in 2015, follows a simple verse-chorus form, where the rapper delivers an edgy narrative in his gravelly voice.
- Aside from these two distinct types of structure, there are also distinct types of song that have caught on this year. Pop-punk band Blink-182’s 2015 song, “All the Small Things,” for example, has been played 1,019 times on our playlist. The song follows a verse-chorus form, where the band expresses their affection for each other in the form of an upbeat pop tune.
- The trend of embracing simpler structures continues in 2017. BTS’s “Mic Drop,” for example, which was released in 2016, follows a verse-chorus form, where the K-pop band’s distinctively sweet and melodic vocals propel the track.
Create A Hook
The most played song this year is also one of the best-liked songs on our playlist. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two years since “Baby” was released, and we’re still finding new ways to listen to it. It starts with a repetitive guitar riff, which establishes the song’s chord progression and provides the listener with a memorable hook. The same goes for Lorde’s “Green Light,” another song that has been played more than 1 million times since its release in August 2016. Its driving beat and sing-along chorus make it a crowd-pleaser and an easy favorite for pop fans.
With the right hook, a song can achieve viral status almost immediately. Consider the impact of Pitbull’s “Give Me My Money Back” and Drake’s “One Dance,” both of which feature the same memorable guitar riff and sing-along chorus. In some instances, the use of a hook has been enough to propel a song to #1 on the Billboard Top 100. “One Dance,” for example, spent seven non-consecutive weeks at the top of the chart in 2016, due in large part to its infectious hook.
It’s important to note that a hook is not just limited to a catchy melody and memorable lyrics. As we’ve seen with some of this year’s biggest songs, a hook can also be an instrumental piece that draws listeners into the song. Consider how “Baby” and “Green Light” utilize a pre-chorus to establish the songs’ hooks—the instrumental interlude in “Baby” and the extended guitar solo in “Green Light.” These sections play a crucial part in making the songs memorable and serve as a prelude to the chorus, which is where the real magic happens.
“Baby,” “Green Light” and other top-streamed songs feature prominent choruses, where the vocals kick in and the song turns into a sing-along. The choruses serve as the focal point of these songs and allow the music to shine, rather than get lost in the mix like most other songs on our playlist.
The choruses of top-streamed songs are generally filled with positive and inspiring messages, as can be heard in songs by Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar and others. Themes such as positivity, life and love are recurring themes in the choruses of this year’s biggest songs.
Often, the use of a chorus can help elevate a song to a higher level. Take “Uptown Funk,” for example, a song produced by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. The song started out as a humble, indie-rock demo and slowly built up a following throughout 2015 and 2016, eventually going double platinum in the U.S. According to the RIAA, “Uptown Funk” has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling songs of all time. Its simple, repetitive hook sticks in the head and makes it an easy song to hum or whistle along to—even if you don’t necessarily understand the lyrics.
As we’ve established, the hook is a song’s most distinguishing element. It can act as a vehicle to bring in the ears and attract new fans, but it should also be the springboard for the rest of the song. In that way, the chorus provides the bridge between the intro and the verse, connecting the two most crucial sections of a song. In “Baby,” for example, the first chorus connects the introspective verses about missing someone with the triumphant music and hook-filled choruses about being free.
Establish A Theme
Another important thing to consider when structuring a song is its thematic elements. A song’s lyrics and music should serve as a cohesive unit and provide the listener with a clear vision of what the song is trying to convey. The lyrics of “Baby” tell the story of a broken heart, where the young pop star expresses his undying love for a woman (and his longing for a carefree life). In the same way, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” establishes a theme of transformation, with the singer/songwriter describing how his heart has changed thanks to the love he felt for the woman in the song. These are grand narratives that the lyrics and music serve to unite, as the characters in these songs seek solace in the midst of their heartache.
This unites us with the characters in these songs and draws us into their worlds. Thematic elements can take a variety of forms, from the lyrical—where a songwriter incorporates meaningful lyrics into their narrative—to the musical, where the instruments and song structures reflect the emotional tone and underlying story of the song.
As we’ve established, the introspective and the exuberant are the two sides to a song. The verse, in between the two, can serve as a kind of quiet reflection, where the singer(s) process the events of the day or express their personal feelings. In the case of “Baby,” the verses act as a calming breath following the character-defining choruses. The songwriter(s) wants us to understand that their protagonist is a little girl who has experienced heartbreak, but she is also a fighter who is finally willing to let go of her inhibitions and trust her emotions.