I had heard about the book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook a couple years back and finally got around to reading it. It is a fascinating look at how radio hits are made.  And, like sausage, it may be better not to see them made.  This book takes you behind the curtain and it is shocking.

Seabrook says “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.” But, rather than creative genius hooking them, it is cold hard science. The Song Machine takes a cold-hearted look at the industry in the big reveal that only a couple of people are responsible for nearly all the big hits. I am not talking about artists… I am talking about behind-the-scenes producers. These folks have a formula that is proven to create catchy tunes.

Song machine

One of the interesting things about this hit factory is that the songs are created to affect you emotionally and psychologically. Get this… even if you hate the song, they are created to cause you to sing along after a few listens.

Max Martin (not his real name) is one of the most prolific of these music scientists. As the man behind 22 #1 hits and another 43 Top 10 tracks, he has written or produced songs for Ace of Base, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, P!nk, Back Street Boys, Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Ellie Goulding, Justin Timberlake, Colbie Callait, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Katy Perry, Gavin DeGraw, Ke$ha, Usher, Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, Adam Lambert, Carrie Underwood, The Band Perry, Taylor Swift, Adele, Robin Thicke, Pitbull, MKTO, Carly Rae Jepson, Taio Cruz, Justin Bieber, Niki Minaj and dozens and dozens more.

Seabrook shows that the talent of the average artist is far inferior to musicians and singers of early ages. They have less musical skill. They have less vocal range. They have less talent… period. Despite that, they sell more records because of the psychological impact of these songs. Yes, they are franken-songs. They are crafted in a test tube and not from soul or heart.

This was pointed out well in the popular YouTube video Awesome of Axis where they show that a so many of the popular tracks are made using the same four chords.

It also makes it so easy to see why mashups became “a thing” – its downright easy to mix and match these songs.

In addition to the same chords being used over and over again, the triplet (BUM- bum bum) at the opening of “…Baby One More Time” is designed to create a psychological effect in the listener. We are hard-coded to respond to that sound which is why it is used in so many popular tracks.

Not only are the songs simpler, but the instruments you hear are not even real. They are computer generated sounds meant to sound like instruments (and a little bit more.) In addition, the computer modification of vocals means that not only does an artist no longer have to play an instrument… they don’t even have to be able to sing. The days of a real voice like Whitney Houston are long gone. Now, all that matters is that they are a visually hot commodity… nothing more.

From the creation of New Kids on the Block and The Spice Girls to Katy Perry and Rhianna, the music industry has shifted from talent to hitting specific demographics with in attractive packages.

So if you think music today is not nearly as good as it was in your day… you’re right. But thanks to the song machine it does sell better.

by Chris Doelle


Also published on Medium.