Grab some blank sheet music. Choose a key (a major key, preferably). Set your tempo at something moderate, 4/4 time. Write a melody, a chorus, and a bridge, with each line getting eight bars. Add lyrics about a relatable topic—love? loss? loneliness?—and, voilà, you've written a pop song.
Okay, okay, a 32-bar form and karaoke-friendly lyrics do not a hit song make. But most do follow the same basic guidelines—major key, moderate tempo, broad topic—before they're produced and packaged to become the latest earworms.
Which begs the question: If pop songs can so easily be written and then distributed into an unbreakable cycle of hits, can't they also be reverse engineered and reproduced? Can't a songwriter feed a topic into a machine and have that machine regurgitate a melody and lyrics, forming a pop song that's packaged and ready to go?
Not if you want the song to find an audience, says John Covach, the director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester. Pop music has always been more about cultural significance than musical inventiveness. The tunes that become hits today may not have five years ago. (The Beatles, he says, probably wouldn't have had the success they did if they released their music for the first time today. Our EDM- and autotune-trained ears probably wouldn't allow it.) Besides, there are so many songs under the pop umbrella. "Popular music might as well just be called 'music,'" Covach told me. "It's socially and culturally constructed."