The Structure of Number Ones

by Ralph Murphy

I study all the number one records every year (both Pop and Country) and analyze the structures, first use of title, rhyme scheme, etc. I've had my share of number ones, but nobody cares about number twos or a lot of top tens. If it's not number one, it only looks good in your bank account.

I hope it provides writers, myself included, some insight into what songs writers need to give the publishers or present to artists, producers, managers, and labels; the songs that resonate with listeners so radio has what they need to play to make the users (sponsors and listeners) happy.

Then I publish all that information because that was it was intended for – to inform the songwriter. I have done that for years in my book, "Murphy's Laws of Songwriting." Once you know the basic structures, all that really changes are vocabulary and technology. Anyway, as I've said, survival of the craft of songwriting is my primary goal.

There are six basic structures I've found (which are described in the book) that the songwriter can use to communicate with listeners, while having fun and flexing their creative muscles. But broadcast media restrict the number of choices that a creator has available. There are only three structures that radio apparently needs, including streaming and conventional radio. The greatest rewards are reaped by getting the attention of the distracted listener. That makes songwriters, who don't have the craft, victims. They find songwriting partners who are producers, artists, publishers or band members who are kind of involved in writing the song and have their names on it or directly profit from it, but they only want hits. Hits easily give listeners what they expect (even though they don't know it), and are formulaic.

The distracted listeners only hear and recognize three structures in Pop and three structures in County. More are available; however, the suppliers of music want writers to conform because it costs a lot of money (according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry: $2 million, but slightly less for Country) to push that record to number one, because everyone wants a "hit.”

All the structures that I use in the article are taken from the book “Murphy's Laws of Songwriting,” which is used by Pros and writers who want to be hit songwriters. I use Billboard Magazine as my source of information. There were nine songs that went to number one on the Pop Charts, nine number ones on the Country Hot Country Chart and 38 number ones on the Country Airplay Chart. The Hot Country Chart takes in sales and digital downloads and stuff, and the Country AirPlay Chart is only airplay, but a number one is a number one!


So, if you're writing Pop songs (for the artist or you are the artist) and you stay with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th forms, you're okay.

  • 2nd form is verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental/breakdown, choruses and out.
  • 3rd form is verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8/bridge, chorus and out.
  • 4th form is verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, middle 8/bridge, either pre- or chorus, out.

For Pop, of the nine forms, the 4th form is preferred. It's used five-and-a-half times (Adele uses 4th form and half of 5th form). The 3rd form is always "don't bore us, get us to the chorus" and so in Pop it's only one used one time. The other two number ones use the 2nd form, and that's a "band" medium using multiple characters. That's it for the structure of the Pop number ones.


Let's move on to the other ingredients. The first use of the pronoun "you" is on average about 18 seconds, but it occurs as soon as 3 seconds or as late as 33 seconds. Remember, no one wants to hear about your innermost feelings. The mantra is "what's in it for the listener, what's in it for the listener, and what's in it for the listener?” Your job as a writer is to make the singer look good, and using "you" does that. It makes the singer look caring. Use detail to how show how bad or good that "you" makes the singer feel.


Dance is very important to Pop: Five of the nine hover around the 100 BPM mark. It's also important to Rap if you want the lyric heard, so keep it in the low 70 BPM...the 2nd form. The other number ones are ballads. If you're dealing with the dance medium, the heart rate of the dancer is a consideration. It's probably going to be 120 BPM to 128 BPM. As a matter of fact, "Look What You Made Me Do" by Taylor Swift is 128, but I'll look at that next year.


We live in an Internet world so the title is important. Get to that first use of the title in 60 seconds. The listener has an expectation and that expectation should be fulfilled in 60 seconds. That keeps the listener there for the second verse and, hopefully, for the rest of the song.

It's important to "dead end" the song, because it pisses the listener off and makes them think that they're being deprived of something. It makes them want to listen to it again and that's a good thing.

The first few lines lead directly to the title. So, when you write Pop, if you're in a band, it's all about your brand, so take care of that. For the rest of you that are not in the band, your job is to make the singer look good to the listener. Nobody's going to spend $2 million on making their singer look like a loser.


Ah, Country number ones. There are two ways Country is dealt with by Billboard Magazine: the Country Airplay Charts and the Hot Country Charts. Let's deal with the Country Airplay Charts and compare them to the Hot Country Charts. In 2016, there were 38 number ones on the Airplay Charts and nine number ones on the Hot Country Charts. Of those Airplay records that were 2nd form, there were two number ones and on the Hot Country Charts there were two number ones. Twenty-two of the 38 number ones on the Country Airplay Chart used 3rd form. That’s almost 58 percent. Three of the nine number ones on the Hot Country Chart used 3rd form. There were nine examples of 4th form on the Airplay Chart and only four on the Hot Country charts.

What can we see from that information? The 3rd form has more impact at radio but when listeners want to go a little deeper, 4th form might be used. Maybe it's that "time of day" factor – that listeners listen differently between 7a.m. and 10 o'clock at night.

The rest was pretty much "hit" songwriting 101...

  • Have a script (song) that lures the listener in.
  • The first few lines lead to the title that is served up in 60 seconds.
  • With rare exceptions, have the pronoun "you" toward the front of your song (average 18 seconds).
  • Make the singer look like a winner to the listener, when the listener is predisposed to hate him/her.
  • Observe the 2 to 2:30 minute wall whereby the listener gets bored and needs something else musically.
  • Hold the listeners attention for about 4 minutes and make that listener want to stream it, download it or want it any way it comes to them.


That's my research to compete in the market, and it works. But, it's had an unexpected consequence. I was going to England a couple of weeks ago. As a consultant for ASCAP, I do some seminars and share the information that I've gleaned so that all songwriters are as equipped for the marketplace.

So, I looked at and analyzed what is current using the UK Top 10:

  • The intro averaged out to 8 seconds, which means they were designed for radio.
  • 9 out of the 10 used the pronoun "you" on an average of 18 seconds.
  • The average time for the record to reach the title was 54 seconds, including intro.
  • 8 out of 10 reached the 2-minute wall between 2 minutes and 2.30 and all "dead ended" the record.

But, what I found was a little troubling regarding structure. The consistency in the records was great – they all sounded wonderful – but 80% of the records were written in the 4th form and 20% were written in 3rd form. What I found was a limited creativity in terms of applying all the structures. The writers were just chasing "hits", they weren't having fun. It's supposed to be fun!

There are another four structures that creators are avoiding on the charts. All the time I assumed that writers were just homing in on the structures that made money and that they knew there were more. I hope they’re aware of all of them. Knowledge is power. Have fun!