Pick ‘n’ Max

Practically everything Swedish superproducer Max Martin turns his hand to becomes an international, multi-platinum mega-hit. His music is estimated to have earned him $250m. Fancy a slice of that action? Of course you do. So here’s all you need to know to compile your very own Max Martin style hit.

2015 was yet another massive year for music supremo Max Martin. Another string of million-selling singles; more number one hits in countries all across the world; and, after twenty years of writing and producing huge pop songs, he was finally rewarded with his very first Grammy.

Max was behind that huge Ellie Goulding song from Fifty Shades Of Grey. He contributed a track to Adele’s record-breaking album 25. Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd was never off the radio and Katy Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show was practically The Max Martin Hour. The hot streak he’s been on since 1999 just doesn’t seem to be cooling off.

If you’ve never heard the name ‘Max Martin’ though it’s not hugely surprising. In an era of fame-hungry producers-as-performers (your David Guettas, your Diplos, your Calvin Harrises) he keeps an incredibly private profile. But take a closer look at the credits at some of the biggest pop songs of the last two decades and you’ll see Max Martin’s name running through them like a stick of Blackpool rock.

He was behind the breakthrough hits for the biggest names in pop: Britney Spears (…Baby, One More Time), N*Sync (Tearin’ Up My Heart), the Backstreet Boys (We’ve Got It Goin’ On), Kelly Clarkson (Since U Been Gone), Katy Perry (I Kissed A Girl) – and dozens of their later hits too.

His career is so expansive, it quickly becomes boring trying to do it justice. He has written hits for absolutely everyone; his entire discography is massive. Take a look.

But even so, the charts are still a pretty big space to occupy single-handedly. Sure, he might have written more top ten hits than Madonna, or Elvis Presley, or the Beatles, but even Max Martin can’t physically take up every space on every chart, every week. He just can’t.

Which means there’s plenty of room for you to have a huge Max Martin-style smash, if you want one. You just need to know what you’re doing. So if you’ve ever fancied selling 135 million records, and going down in history as the greatest writer-producer of your generation, you just need to mix-and-match a few of these classic Max Martin staples and you’ll be well on your way.

Girl Power

To date, Max Martin has had 21 number one hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 – a score that only Paul McCartney and John Lennon can beat.

And who have these number ones been for?

Eight for Katy Perry, four for Taylor Swift, three for Britney, two for Pink and one for Kelly Clarkson. His others have been single hits: one apiece for *NSync, Maroon 5 and The Weeknd.

In total, he’s had six times more number ones for women than he has had for men. Therefore, to start with, you’re going to want to pick a key and a melody which complements a female vocal range.

A significant number of the hits he’s written for Katy Perry top out at the note D5 (which is the second D above middle C) – Roar, Wide Awake, Part Of Me, California Gurls. So do Blank Space and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together by Taylor Swift.

That’s approaching the top edge of a contralto’s range, but the melodies rarely go deep enough to make the most of a proper contralto voice. To ensure your singer can deliver it to the best of her ability then, you’re best off pitching it for an imaginary mezzo-soprano who has a slightly limited top-end.

The A Capella Ending

The end might be an unusual place to start but Max Martin has a very definite way he likes to close out his songs. It’s a trick that appears again and again – no matter the style, no matter the era – and that’s to have the music drop out a bar or so before the end and let the performer sing the final word or line without any accompaniment.

It happens in the songs he was putting out at the start of his career with Rami Yacoub, like Britney’s …Baby, One More Time and *NSync’s It’s Gonna Be Me. It happens in the songs he was writing with Dr Luke, like Katy Perry’s E.T. or Dark Horse. And it is still happening with now that he’s working more with Shellback, on songs like Taylor Swift’s Blank Space and We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

Why the reliance on such a simple gimmick? There’s an extremely practical reason.

When it comes to ending a pop song, the easiest option is to fade it out. You keep looping the hook around and around and bring the volume down slowly until it’s completely silent. It does save you the bother of having to find a satisfactory end to the music but it is not without its drawbacks.

The trouble with the fade-out is two-fold. First, it encourages radio DJs to talk over the end of your song. They can’t risk having the sound levels drop, so they have to preempt your fade-out – which means that all of your final chorus will become a bed for them to prattle over.

Second, you can’t recreate a fade-out live. Now that artists aren’t making big money from record sales anymore, they need to tour much more than before. With a big budget and enough stage space, you can get all manner of technical equipment involved to recreate the rest of your record live, but the one thing you can’t do is have your sound guy slowly cut out all of the channels until you’re singing your best known hit quietly into a dead mic.

Well, you can. But it would look ridiculous.

That means, at some point, someone is going to have to come up with an ending to your song. So it’s best you do it in the studio and have an expert like Max Martin stick his tried and tested a capella ending on it.

The Quiet Third Verse

A quiet third verse isn’t specifically a Max Martin trope – any more than ‘writing in 4/4’ is, or ‘using drums’ is. Everybody writing pop music does all of those things to some degree, but few people make such a big deal of their third verses as Max Martin.

To establish the song firmly in the listener’s mind, the usual pop pattern is: verse, chorus, verse, chorus... Then, to add a bit of variety, the third time – rather than just repeating your verse again – you provide something a little different.

Some writers favour an instrumental solo. Others favour something called a ‘middle eight’ (which is an eight-bar phrase that is melodically and harmonically distinct from the rest of the song). One of the more modern tricks to have a featured rapper take a verse (a number of the Max Martin/Katy Perry hits do this – California Gurls, E.T., Dark Horse).

Or, if you lose your goddamn mind, you can stage a mini-playlet in place of a third verse like Britney did in Oops! I Did It Again.

But one of Max’s staples is to strip the backing band way, way back and reduce the arrangement to either a keyboard playing chords while the vocalist offers a more thoughtful and emotional delivery (a fixture of his late 90s funk-pop work – like the string-synths on We Got It Goin’ On and Everybody (Backstreet’s Back); the piano of …Baby, One More Time); or a muted guitar (when he took a more indie-led approach with Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift).

The 8-Beat Guitar Riff

For a man who made his name creating some of the most successful pop music of the 21st century, Max Martin actually started his career as the frontman of glam metal-band It’s Alive.

So though his early forays into mass-market songwriting in the mid-to-late nineties were predominantly funky songs for boybands like Slam Dunk (Da Funk) for 5ive, Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) for the Backstreet Boys and I Want You Back for *NSync, his roots actually lie in rock.

This became incredibly clear when the second phase of his career was largely based around 8-beat guitar riffs.

Almost all pop music is written out as a series of four-beat phrases (called bars). That’s the reason why flashy drummers will often count “1, 2, 3, 4!” before starting a song. One of Max Martin’s classic sounds is to double the speed of this count and chug out a guitar riff to it – hitting the strings twice for every beat.

According to John Seabrook, who wrote the book The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, the idea came to Max and his long time collaborator, Dr Luke, when they heard the song Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They loved the sound, but were frustrated that it didn’t have a big enough chorus. So they took the chugging guitar rhythm from that chorus and recreated it – taking it to number one, again and again and again.

(So close, Karen O!)

If you’re worried that taking the 8-beat riff will sound like too obvious a rip-off (or you fancy something with even more pace) you can triple the count instead of doubling it to make it a 12-beat riff, like Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl.

Or, if your basic tempo is slow enough, you can even go so far as to quadruple it and make it 16-beat – like he does in Taylor Swift’s Style.

Chorus Loops

Struggling with the lyrics? Don’t worry. Max Martin and his Swedish contemporaries aren’t that fussed about the actual content of those. Partly that’s because English is their second language, so they’ve never much cared for delicate, nuanced lyrics.

Mainly though, it’s for musical reasons.

As every syllable needs at least one note, being very particular with your words can often come at the expense of making the melody scan. If you’re happy to let the melody rule, and just sing any old thing over the top of it, you are in a much better position to make a hit record.

What’s great about this for lyric writers is it affords you the opportunity to just repeat the final line of your chorus, in place of finding a new rhyme.

Pink’s Raise Your Glass: “Come on and come on and raise your glass” x2
Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream: “Don’t ever look back” x2
Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off: “Shake it off” x2
Ellie Goulding’s Love Me Like You Do: “Love me like you do” x2
The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face: “But I love it” x2

Vocal Glissandi

Traditional best practice would have singers hit each of their notes right in the centre. You sing one note, then you move on to another – and a technically proficient singer would hit the required pitches dead on. Slurring and sliding between notes, to a vocal purist, can often be a sign of sloppiness or bad technique.

However, used sparingly, a vocal slide between two notes (known as a ‘glissando’) can be very popular. Or, at least, it can if Max Martin is getting you to do it.

The way he got Pink to do it in on the word ‘serious’ in Raise Your Glass. Or the way he got Katy Perry to do it with the word ‘roar’ in Roar. Or Demi Lovato in Cool For The Summer. Or Taylor Swift in We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

The Vb7 Inversion

In any given key, there are two vitally important chords: the tonic and the dominant.

In pop music these two chords usually go by the more colloquial names, ‘first’ and ‘fifth’ (or, even more familiar, ‘one’ and ‘five’)

The tonic and the dominant are the two chords that fully establish which key you’re in. They act as the piece’s North and South pole. The home chord (the tonic) and the away chord (the dominant).

One of Max Martin’s preferred methods is to use a particular variation of the dominant chord, an ‘inversion’ which is known as Vb7. (When people are being very high-minded and proper when writing about chords like this, it is common to use Roman numerals, I and V).

Without getting massively technical about it, inverting a chord means that you re-position all of the notes that make that chord up so as to give a different prominence to them.

Take, for example, a G Major chord in the key of C. (C is the tonic ‘I’; G is the dominant ‘V’)

The G Major chord is made up of three notes: G, B and D. Arranged like that, that’s your standard V.

But if you were to slip that G from the bottom up to the top and play those notes in the order B, D, G – you have placed it in its first inversion: ‘Vb’.

If you were to then move the B up and put it above the G, so that the order now runs D, G, B – it is still a G Major chord, but it is in its second inversion: ‘Vc.’

The ‘7’ (which is a cornerstone of good pop music) means that the regular chord of G has an extra added note to it: the seventh. So, on a keyboard, a V7 looks like this:

And a Vb7 looks like this:

What’s so special about this particular chord?

Firstly, it helps to ring the changes a bit. Songs that move between the tonic and dominant endlessly end up sounding a little ploddy and starchy – like an old-fashioned national anthem or a traditional nursery rhyme. By inverting the chord though, you add a bit of variety to that otherwise predictable pattern (which is how it gets used in the choruses of *NSync’s It’s Gonna Be Me)

Secondly, it adds a touch of drama. A regular G Major chord sounds very grounded, very sturdy. Pull the G away from the bottom and shunt it up to a B however and suddenly the chord becomes much less stable, much more precarious. It’s the kind of chord they’d use in a silent movie to indicate a burglar was loitering and about to break in (and how it gets used in the chorus of Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life)

Thirdly, and most importantly, it can lead to some extremely funky chord changes – particularly in a minor key. This is because most of the notes in the Vb7 are just a semitone away from the tonic chord and so it just slips from one to the other with a very simple slide, which – both mathematically and sonically – works beautifully (like in Britney’s …Baby, One More Time).

So there you have it. Pretty simple, really. It’s a surprise more people haven’t been having international number one smashes with the world’s hottest artists using these same techniques. Still, now we’ve broken it all down for you, you should be absolutely golden.

You just have to promise to use your powers for good, and don’t inflict any more dreadful horrors like Bang Bang on the world.

See you at the Grammys next year!