How to make Pop music – Original Song Breakdown (Say My Name)

1373343153_d35d1ed13f_mWhat makes a radio hit?

What makes a powerful chord progression?

Why can one vocal be catchy and another not?

What makes a melody a good melody?

In a recent newsletter I told my subscribers that I’d be exploring Pop music creation and sharing my journey publicly.

I am looking to learn answers to the questions above as well as things like:

  • How to record and process vocals
  • How to not suck at singing
  • How to EQ like a fucking karate master
  • How to create ultra-accessible arrangements
  • How to write incredibly compelling vocal melodies
  • How to write lyrics with engineered subject matter
  • How to create an image and market the final product

And whatever else comes up!

To start this journey, here’s a song I begun to test some things I’ve learned.This is not final.

While it may seem uncomplicated, there was a lot of intentional choices with this track. Let’s walk through the creation of it.

Creating the Core

Where to start making a track is always an interesting conversation. It basically comes down to one of three things: Harmony, Melody, or Rhythm(chords, vocal, drums).

I’ve never, ever been much of a melody-first kind of person. That said, I can understand why it would be useful in Pop production. If you’re walking home one day and come up with a catchy vocal part and decide “I wanna turn this into a song,” then you’re starting Melody first.

For this track I kept it super simple. I wanted to just get in without thinking too much. So I threw a 4-on-the-floor kick drum beat with offbeat hi-hats and a snare on the two and four. The most basic of beats but it works and it grooves and it gives you something to work with.

Next, I decided I was going to work on harmony. I picked up my bass guitar and jammed along with the drums until I played the first two chords (A to F) and realized that was the harmony I liked.

A to F is going from the root to the sixth. From there, I developed the progression into a typical 4 bar chord progression with 1 chord per bar.

It goes A Minor – F Major – C Major – G Minor. The progression is then i – VI – IV – vii. I’m writing this part to make note of it — at the time, I was just jamming these four notes in a row on my bass. I then recorded the bass part.

Then, I realized I wanted to change the song up into an 8 bar progression (rather than 4). On the last bar, I take the harmony to E Minor. This is the most tense note in the A Minor key (which the song is in). Bringing the song to E Minor at the end of the 8 bar phrase is literally the most tense way to do it.

This is very intentional because I want that part to have the most tension that the resolution is strong. There’s a certain powerful momentum to good Pop tracks that keeps you listening as it rolls along. This is part of that. This is veryimportant in the vocal melody design which we’ll see in a bit.

Afterwards, I picked up my guitar and tried to figure out a funky bit to go along with it. I had trouble landing on anything I really liked so I landed on just playing the chord progression on a high note. You can hear this clearly panned a little bit to the left at the start of the track.

One thing I see Pop tracks do is frequency coverage. Frequency Coverage is making sure you have sounds playing that cover most of the frequency spectrum. Similar to junk food, our ears find loud and wide sounds to be the most tasty.

Linkin Park kills it here. Listen to Lying From You from their album Meteora:

Clearly, the overpowering guitars cover a lot of frequency ground. Guitars and pianos are extremely effective at this because of their range (ever wondered why solo Vocal + Piano/Guitar music is pervasive)?

Specifically, listen for the really high-pitched shiny sounds that are panned center.

It’s interesting because I know that when something like Linkin Park comes on my iTunes shuffle, I find it difficult to listen to much less-frequency full songs afterwards. I need to reset myself before listening to some chill Nujabes.

So, the reason I put that sparse and small guitar part in the track is for this purpose. I wanted to have some frequency coverage up there and create a fuller sound. That said, I would definitely look to increase my frequency coverage moving forward with this track.

As a note, through the process of writing these parts I’ve been mixing and producing. I do this as I go.

Arrangement and Vocals

The vibe of this track is inspired from a current hit called Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd.

The specific things I like about this track are his rhythmic singing, the focus on a groovy bass and small-room sound, and the interesting subject matter. It’s also in A Minor but that comparison was unintentional!

To understand this track better, I broke down it’s arrangement and took some notes.


The things to note are that:

  • My handwriting is awful
  • A section change occurs every 8 bars (18 seconds because of the BPM).
  • The song is G – F – Am the entire time. The song survives on this repetition through smart energy changes and vocal design.
  • The Bridge is a basically the verse and pre-chorus except shorter with low energy. Similar to the Intro.

What I learned from this was nothing but a reminder to keep it simple and to the point. I landed on a very similar arrangement for my song:

Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus – Break – Verse – Pre-Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Chorus (The lack of an intro is because I haven’t made it yet).

As a note, while doing all this analysis, I was simultaneously working on the lyrics and the vocal melody. It was an integrated process where all the pieces informed each other. I’m only writing it this way for the sake of organization and to understand it easier.

So how do I achieve the difference in sections with minimal work? Through addition and removal of instrumentation. I’ll break it down by section.

  • Verse 1 – All drums. Guitar note. Bass. Vocal.
  • Pre-Chorus 1 – All drums. Guitar note. Bass. Repetitive vocal.
  • Chorus 1 – No snare. Guitar note. Panned guitars. Bass. New repetitive vocal.
  • Break – All drums. Guitar note. Bass. No vocal.
  • Verse 2 – All drums. Guitar note. Bass. Vocal.
  • Pre-Chorus 2 – No snare. Guitar note. Bass. Repetitive vocal.
  • Bridge – No snare. No hats. Guitar note. Panned guitars. Bass. New vocal.
  • Chorus 3 – No snare. Guitar note. Panned guitars. Repetitive vocal.
  • Chorus 4 – All drums. Guitar note. Bass. Repetitive vocal (different performance than other choruses).

Vocal Design

Writing a good vocal is for more than simply coming up with a melody. Applying music theory, switching up the performance, recording it, and processing it are all important and add to the final result. As a result, I’ll be referring to this whole thing as “vocal design.”

Anyway, I had the drums and bass on loop and hooked up my mic. I ad libbed some stuff, just playing around and singing things that came to my head and searching for melodies. I was specifically looking to create something rhythmic like what The Weeknd is doing in Can’t Feel My Face (which is similar to Michael Jackson’s vocal style).

From listening to a lot of hits on the radio right now, I came to the conclusion that a rhythmic melody is attractive. In fact, I’d argue that’s what made many of the songs catchy. Listening to Love Me Harder by Ariana Grande ft. The Weeknd, I found myself more entranced by The Weeknd’s vocal rhythm than Ariana rolling around in half-inch deep water.

After some time of playing around, I landed on the vocal part that ended up being in the Pre-Chorus — “I just don’t play those games.” And yes, it’s repetitive on purpose. After one listen, you should be able to sing it back to me.

This is the beginning of the Subject Matter or Story that my song covers. One thing Pop music is great at is having relatable lyrics. I was certain I wanted the lyrics to focused on something that many people have experienced.

Thus, I landed on the simple idea that it’s freaking annoying when you’re trying to talk to someone through text and they’re clearly waiting to respond based on some “rulebook” or “text etiquette” they picked up from Cosmo. When dating, this is super frustrating. I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar to this (which is why I’ve chosen this topic).

Here’s a heads up everyone: If someone stops talking to you because you’ve texted them too much (within reason), they never liked you to begin with. Real relationships don’t walk a fine line like that. Love doctor Zencha over here, trust me.

Anyway, with this in mind, the lyrics and melody began filling out. The process was a lot of writing things down and seeing how they’d rhythmically fit into the track. If I felt like I needed another syllable or two, I’d add a word in (this is why the word Baby is used so much in Pop music. Holy crap, it’s amazing for rhythmic vocal filler. The N word works well in rap music too but that’s not at my disposal).

It was a lot of back and forth between ideas, rhythm, singing, writing, editing, singing, ideas, etc.

I even broke out my guitar and would strum the chord progression while singing over it for a stripped down experience. This is how the verse melody was written.

To showcase this, I’ve recorded myself playing the guitar and singing the part (this is after I had finished up the initial piece you heard at the beginning). You’ll also hear a different Chorus rhythm I initially had which has a strong reggae feel.

Here are the current lyrics which I had open in a text editor as I was writing the track. If you pay close attention you’ll notice I don’t always say every word I’ve written. While doing the actual performance, I went with the flow and skipped words or added filler if the mood struck. You’ll also see I’ve done some notation wondering if I should switch up a section.

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Another intentional thing I’ve done is structuring my vocal phrases to maximize tension. I want to keep things tense so they flow over and keep momentum going. The less you resolve, the more tense the song becomes.

Let’s look at the verse and second half of the chorus to see where I’ve done this best. I’ll put the note that the line finishes on at the end in bold.

Sitting all alone on the couch I’m wondering where you’ve been (C)

Sent a text as I got up the clock said nine ten PM (A)

The first line above ends on a C which is the third note in the scale.

Then, I close out this 4 bar phrase by resolving on the root note.

Guess you’ve been ignoring me all day, all day (C)

And I can’t understand why you would want to be that way (D)

The first line here ends on the C again.

Then, I close out this whole 8 bar phrase by ending on a D. This is the fourth note in the A Minor key which is pretty tense and helps roll us into the Pre-Chorus.

The structure of this melody is ABAC (don’t read those as notes. That’s just organization). The first and third lines are the same. The second is different from those and fourth is different from them all as well.

Another spot I’ve created momentum through tension is in the second-half of the chorus.

It’s not so complicated (E)

Love isn’t really a game (E)

If we vibe then it’s okay (E)

If not move on and let me breath (A)

The first three lines end on E. This is the most tense note for A Minor. In other words, I’m just teasing the resolution for 6 bars until finally resolving it back home at the end of the last line. This structure is AAAB. 


My final thoughts on the track:

  • I’m not happy with the vocal performance or my pitches. Need to continue learning how to sing better.
  • Sing it more rhythmically.
  • Great vocal production still eludes me.
  • The lyrical content is too shallow.
  • The lyrical repetition is too forced.
Originally posted here: