The Journey of a Song

From an idea to potential profit, let’s trace the steps musicians take to make a song.


Good to have, but not required

Some people learn how to cook, maybe by following a recipe or having a family member teach them. More adventurous folks might decide that they can just ‘wing it’ and start by using whatever’s in the pantry, relying on their culinary intuition. While both methods can eventually lead to fairly decent home cooking, learning from recipes might get you there faster. This is because you’re able to develop correct techniques without going through rounds of experimentation.

Similarly, music has its own set of rules, but we can still appreciate it without any conscious awareness of what these rules. We can even play an instrument or write a song without learning music theory. But, as with cooking, learning the rules provides us with a structured approach to understanding the principles of music. It gives us a more straightforward pathway to becoming experts in the field. Lastly, knowing the rules makes it easier to determine when we can break them to produce unexpectedly pleasant results.

Guidelines, not restrictions

Music theory is not so much a set of hard and fast rules as it is an articulation of what humans have observed in relation to music over time. It applies what we know about vibrations, frequencies, and sound waves in explaining why we interpret certain combinations of sound as pleasant, and others as not.

That said, the rules of music are by no means universal. We often hear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, ‘good’ music is subjective. Whether or not we enjoy a song is partially influenced by our culture and environment. Exposure to certain musical patterns – including the music our mothers listened to while we were in their womb – creates familiarity and, more often than not, preference.

As a whole, the conventions and common practices we find in Western music theory apply across all genres. These fundamentals serve as a helpful foundation and take a lot of guesswork out of the process of creating music.

Expectation and familiarity

What makes a good song? As much as music preference can be subjective, research shows that familiarity plays a big role in our enjoyment of music. When listening to a new song, our brain looks for elements we can relate to, like a familiar pattern of chords.

Being able to anticipate what’s next helps us engage with and find meaning in music. When we successfully ‘predict’ the future – even if it’s just the next note or lyric in a song – it fulfills an evolutionary desire to prepare for the future, something we inherited from our ancestors.

At the same time, slight variations from our expectations make a song more intriguing, and thus more appealing. When music violates our expectations, it creates a sense of tension, keeping us on edge. When our expectations are finally met, we feel a sense of release and satisfaction, making it worth our while.

So, songwriters tend to strike a balance between following tried and true combinations and keeping things fresh by adding some novelty into their songs. In doing so, an understanding of even basic music theory can prove to be a helpful starting point since music theory attempts to explain why we like certain musical patterns.

Starting with a key

In some ways, we can say that a good song starts with an understanding of musical conventions. Breaking a rule or two doesn’t make a song bad, but it can be off-putting to the listener. A song that strays too far from common practice might be perceived as too experimental, thus lying beyond the boundaries of what constitutes good music.

Songs are written in a certain key that guides the composer to understanding which notes will go well with the key center. By choosing to write a song in the key of C major, a songwriter with music theory knowledge now has a blueprint for the rest of the song’s notes. They’re not restricted from using notes that don’t fall under the key of C major – in fact, an occasional departure from the key signature adds an element of surprise – but using too many of such notes could distract or confuse the listener.

The safety of form and structure

As researchers deepen our understanding of music, making a hit song has become both easier and more challenging. On the one hand, songwriters have a laundry list of elements they need in their masterpiece – but so does every other songwriter. When hit songs follow a prescribed formula, it’s a challenge to stand out and to push the envelope in making beautiful, fresh music.

As we go through the structure of a song, we’ll encounter some of the basic rules for hit songs. For example, an intro with a good hook, well, hooks listeners in and piques their interest. Many great songs are famous for their intros. Within the first few beats of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” fans know what they’re in for and are ready to sing along.

The first verse presents the song’s story. Here, the lyrics must pack a punch, delivering substance without lingering too long. We need to get to the chorus soon, either directly or through a pre-chorus transition. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing the listener’s attention.

It’s all about the chorus

As the main highlight of a song, the chorus is the catchiest part of the piece. It’s what we hope gets stuck in people’s heads! It contains the melody we want people to hum as they go about their daily lives. As such, we want the chorus to be the focus of the song – for example, by making the notes higher or louder.

Following the excitement of the chorus, we transition back to the verse. Typically, the second verse is similar to the first, but with different lyrics. It adds more detail to the story before we’re brought back to the chorus. After all, repetition and familiarity help drill the song’s message into listeners’ heads.

Songwriters usually insert a bridge after the second chorus. The bridge introduces a new pattern of chords and a slightly different feel to the music. It breaks the monotony and adds a fresh contrast before looping back into a third instance of the chorus – and sometimes a fourth – before the song bids the listener goodbye with a short outro.

It starts with an idea

While the journey to a hit song begins with writing it, there aren’t any clear-cut or specific instructions that magically produce a well-written song beyond that. One might begin with a simple tune, an interesting rhythm, or just a germ of an idea, and use that as a starting point. If a songwriter is lucky, inspiration may strike from the depths of the subconscious. Paul McCartney, for example, woke up from sleep to write the popular Beatles hit “Yesterday.”

Most ideas stay as they are, a forgotten recording or just another page in a songwriter’s notebook waiting to be rediscovered. But the lucky ones will get built on. The songwriter might send them in to a producer, who adds a beat, finds a suitable chord progression, and layers the track on a bassline. Lyrics are composed to fit the song’s rhythm and a demo track will be recorded, though at this point, the song is still very much a work in progress.

From idea to reality

Some musicians write their own songs, in which case they’ll continue collaborating with the producer to refine the demo track. But many songwriters work professionally as just songwriters, composing for other musical acts or artists. So, if the song has yet to be earmarked for a musical artist, the producer may send the demo track to several artists to see who might be interested, or one they have in mind.

Once an artist comes on board, they work over the song’s lyrics with the songwriter. They spend a few days in the recording studio re-recording the vocals, making sure they get the melody just right, and putting everything together.

After all the recordings have been made, both vocal and instrumentation, it’s the sound engineers responsibility to mix the track. They adjust the volume of certain tracks, add in effects, and ensure everything fits together perfectly. When everyone is happy with the output, they submit it to the record label.

It takes a village

Transforming a song from an idea into a finished product entails many skills – songwriting, playing and arranging multiple instruments, recording high-quality audio, and mixing tracks. Even after the song has been mastered and produced, the work is yet to be finished. The song needs to be distributed and promoted. To sell records, there needs to be accompanying artwork, record sleeve designs, and a music video if we’re talking about a major recording artist.

Starting musicians don’t have the same resources that major artists do. To be cost-efficient, they often play multiple roles, hiring professionals only where necessary and possible. Artists with deeper pockets, however, have the luxury of bringing more specialists on board – a songwriter, a song producer, session musicians, a recording engineer, and a mixing engineer.

This entire process is pre-funded by the record label, which is also responsible for promoting the artist and their music. Part of this promotion might be sending the recording artist on tour, which again entails a whole set of hands to help with scheduling, lighting, sounds, and logistics.

Who owns a song?

Considering the resources that go into producing a song, at the end of the day, who profits from it? There are two types of ownership of a song, rights to the actual recording – that is, a specific recorded version of the song – and rights to the composition. For major recording artists, ownership depends on their contract with the record label. Generally, however, the record label owns the rights to the sound recording, while the recording artist or their publishing company owns the rights to the composition.

Whereas record labels pay for production expenses in advance, some contracts stipulate these as ‘recoupable costs.’ As the song starts making money, the record label withholds the artist’s royalties for the amount of recoupable costs before the artist begins to receive their share of earnings.

More often than not, record labels take a lion’s share of earnings. Depending on the terms of the contract and the negotiating power of the artist, a record label can take around 50 to 80%. Labels can earn absurd amounts of money on a hit song. On the flip side, they shoulder large upfront expenses and take on the risk of a record falling flat.

Show me the money

Hand in hand with song ownership is the question of how a song makes money. Royalties from music come from different sources and go to all parties involved in the production of a track. First, we have mechanical royalties. These are paid out to songwriters and publishers each time a copy of the track is reproduced, including printed physical copies and online streaming.

Meanwhile, performance royalties are collected whenever a recording of the song is played in public, whether in a restaurant, a mall, or on television. These are collected by performing rights organizations, which distribute these earnings to both songwriters and publishers.

For most artists, however, mechanical and performance royalties aren’t enough to get by. Besides these income streams, musicians can license their songs for TV, advertisements, or video games. In exchange, they receive synchronization, or ‘sync,’ royalties. That said, many artists make the most money by touring and selling merchandise. This includes big musical acts like U2 and Metallica.

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