Hero Cover Image

Songwriting

Dissecting Popular Song Structures

with Asaf Peres of Top40 Theory

In this podcast Top40 Theory explains hit song components such as melodic previews and “fuel-core” hooks, and how you can use these techniques in your songwriting.

Summary:

In this episode, Asaf Peres shares songwriting tips that you can add to your writing tool box. By examining songs like “New Rules” by Dua Lipa, “We Found Love” by Rihanna & Calvin Harris, Billie Eilish’s “Tough Guy,” Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” and many more more, Asaf defines and explains hit song components such as melodic previews, “fuel-core” hooks, and the magic of repetition.

About Asaf Peres:

Asaf Peres is a classically trained composer and music theorist who is obsessed with pop music. Through his research and education platform, Top40 Theory, Asaf sets out to demystify, deconstruct, and define the special sauce behind the world’s biggest songs. 

He’s dissected the inner workings of thousands of pop hits to create a new set of analytical tools and an easy vocabulary for understanding what makes certain songs so infectious.

Aside from publishing a ton of educational content on his site, Asaf has also become a trusted consultant to songwriters, producers, and even record labels, to help guide songs towards their full creative potential.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • There is no formula for writing a hit song. But, there are tools that are commonly seen and utilized in successful songs.

  • Inspiration and going with your gut should lead your creative process. But by learning the rules, you can make informed decisions about when to break them.

  • Write something that only

    you

    can write. Authenticity and uniqueness help a song stand out.

  • Asaf’s research has shown “fuel-core” hooks to be one of the most commonly seen types of hooks in hit songs.

  • Tension and release are crucial to hit songs. This is also called “dynamics” and can deliver a feeling of “payoff” when a notable part of the song rolls back around.

  • It’s good to think of repetition of different elements as “cards.” You may have a card for melody; a card for rhythm; a card for lyrics, etc. You can choose to repeat all the cards (hard repetition), or trade in as many as you want for a softer repetition. 

  • Knowledge and skills are two different things. Practice what you have learned, and it can become a skill. The more proficient you are with a skill, the less you need to “think” when creating. You can use that brain power for other creative things!

SONG STARTERS:

  • Asaf mentions songs with a memorable melodic preview such as, “We Found Love” by Rihanna and Calvin Harris, which uses the same melody in the verse as in the chorus. What are some other songs with distinct melodic previews? 

    • Now try writing your own song with one (or many!) melodic previews.

  • Asaf mentions songs with “fuel-core” hooks such as “Bad Guy” by Billie Eillish and

    “Boys” by Charli XCX. Can you name at least three other songs with “fuel-core” hooks? Look up the lyrics. On paper, you should be able to identify and highlight the “fuel” and the “core” of each section. 

    • Now try writing your own fuel-core hook.

  • Repetition is a song’s most powerful tool. Try writing a hook where every lyric line feels strong enough to repeat four times.

KEY TERMS:

  • Melodic preview:

    when you plant a part of the chorus elsewhere in the song (such as early in the verse or played by an instrument in the background). These are intended to hit your “subconscious,” meaning you’ll

    feel

    like you’ve heard that melody before, but might not realize it came earlier in the song.

    • Katy Perry – “Teenage Dream”

      • “You think I’m Pretty” (verse) previews “…feel like I live in a” (chorus).

    • Rihanna and Calvin Harris – “We Found Love”

      • The entire verse previews the chorus (nearly identical melody).

      • Producer Max Martin refers to this kind of preview as the “Prince Theory.”

    • Taylor Swift – “You Need to Calm Down”

      • “…and I’m just like damn” (verse) previews “You need to calm down” (chorus).

  • “Fuel-core” Hook:

    a two-part hook. The first part is called the “core” of the hook: that's the part that most people are going to remember and is the easiest to sing along to. The second part (in capital letters below) is the “fuel,” which energizes the core, giving the hook momentum and rhythmic variety.

    • Billie Eilish – “Bad Guy”

      • “So you’re a TOUGH GUY, like it really ROUGH GUY.”

    • Maroon 5 – “Girls Like You”

      • “‘Cause GIRLS LIKE YOU run ‘round with GUYS LIKE ME ’til sundown when I COME THROUGH, I need a GIRL LIKE YOU, yeah yeah.”

    • Charli XCX – “Boys”

      • “I was busy thinking ’bout BOYS, BOYS, BOYS, I was busy dreaming ’bout BOYS, BOYS, BOYS.”

  • Repetition:

    when an element of a song is reused. 

  • Hard Repetition:

    when several elements of a song are reused (i.e. the same lyrics AND melody), and the repetition is noticeable.

  • Soft Repetition:

    a more subtle use of repetition in which a listener may not notice a repeated element because of the use of several new elements.

    • Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”

      • “What you doing? (What you doing?)

      • “Where you at? (Where you at?)”

        • Lyrics, melody, rhythm, metric position, and underlying chord are all the same.

        • The only thing that changes is the vocal texture.

    • Ariana Grande – “thank u, next”

      • THANK YOU NEXT, NEXT (x3).

        • Lyrics, melody, rhythm, metric position repeat.

        • The only change is in the chord progression.

    • Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”

      • INTERNAL REPETITION - “play play play play play.”

        • The lyric repeats; each “play” is a quarter note & on the beat; they are all sung over the same chord.

        • BUT the pitch changes from one “play” to the next, and because it is a central element it softens the song up more than the previous examples.

      • EXTERNAL REPETITION – “play play play” to “hate hate hate” to “shake shake shake.”

        • The melody, the rhythm, and the metric position are the same.

        • BUT the chords and lyrics change, making it softer than the internal repetition.

    • Justin Bieber – “Holy”

      • INTERNAL REPETITION - “hold me hold me hold me.”

        • The lyric “hold me” repeats, as well as the rhythm of each “hold me”

        • BUT the metric position of each “hold me” is different because each of them is 1/8+1/16, which means the first one falls on the beat, the next one falls on the fourth 16th of the beat, etc.. Also, the pitch of each “hold me” changes” and the chord changes midway through the phrase.

      • EXTERNAL REPETITION – “hold me hold me” to “holy holy.”

        • Same melody, rhythm, metric placement of the phrase, and chords.

        • The lyric change from “hold me” to “holy” softens it up, but because it’s the only change, it makes sense to move away from it after only two repetitions, as opposed to three in the “Shake It Off” example above.

    • John Legend – “All of Me”

      • “All of me” and “all of you” in the chorus to “all of me” and “all of you” in the post-chorus

        • The lyrics are the same, which anchors this as a repetition.

        • BUT the melody, rhythm, chords, and even vocal timbre (head voice instead of chest voice) are different, which makes it a very soft repetition that still sounds like a repetition.

    • Olivia Rodrigo – “Driver’s License”

      • “I know we weren’t” to “perfect but I’ve” to “never felt this.”

        • This is a barely noticeable soft repetition, mostly because the lyrics are one long sentence, and the pitch changes from group to group

        • BUT each group is a distinct set of four repeating quarter notes, the pitches within each group are repeated, and the chord underneath remains constant. So even though this doesn’t consciously register as a repetition, the background repeated elements leave the impression of repetition.

Watch more episodes about songwriting, production, and collaboration, plus listen to Song Start: The Podcast, here.

For more info on Song Start click here.