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The ‘Melodic Math’ of Producer Max Martin

The ‘Melodic Math’ of Producer Max Martin

Who is Max Martin? Max is a Swedish producer and writer who started rise to fame in the late 1990’s when he co-wrote Baby One More Time by Britney Spears. Since then he’s written or co-written 24 of the top 100 Billboard Pop Hits, only to be bested by John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles fame. You’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard his name before. Well, he prefers to be behind the scenes–a humble guy with a penchant for collaborating with others and spending his time obsessively writing in the studio.

You may be like me, and feel like the pop songs of the last two decades sound a little too formulaic. It’s only the past couple of years that pop and indie have really had breakout moments that make it seem like there isn’t just one guy churning out songs for all of the artists backed by the major labels. We have Max to thank for that. You might be wondering why you would want to learn how this guy wrote chart topping songs, if you aren’t a pop singer. Well, there is a lot to be gleamed from Max’s process and formula, even if you fear you would hate yourself for writing that type of music. For one, he is the master of the ear worm. And for two he is so consistent in his formulaic process, that he seems to be able to keep hitting the songs out of the park.

One such tactic is what Max Martin calls, ‘melodic math’. Max is a stickler for consistency. He tends to do the same thing unless it isn’t working, and then, of course, he isn’t afraid to break the rules. But just look at his results. Seems to be working! So he mostly sticks with it. Melodic math does gives him a repeatable pattern that allows him to increase the odds that the songs he writes become top hits. Let’s dig into it a bit.

What is melodic math?

Max Martin’s formula for songwriting. It is the formula. The first thing you’ll notice is that the principles themselves are not really anything new. It’s really his consistency in following these principles that makes him stand out from other hit makers

Max Martin’s Principles:

Rule #1 Melody is King. Build your song around a great melody. The lyrics are really there to serve the melody. He doesn’t bother with the words making too much sense.

The lyrics are there to serve the melody. If you add one syllable or take it away, it’s a completely different syllable to Max.

“It’s very mathematical, a line has to have a certain number of syllables, and the next line has to be its mirror image.”

I can only speak for myself when I say that writing the melody first gives me the most freedom.

Max Martin

Rule #2 Hit the Chorus within 50 seconds

Rule #3 No more than 3-4 melodic parts in a song ( and only introduce one at a time)

There must be clarity and space in a song. Max is famous for getting the most out of the least amount of parts.

Rule #4 Recycle melodic parts

This goes hand-in-hand with Rule #3 Familiarity is a big factor in Max’s songs, and it’s the thing that makes his songs so catchy. It plays into the the ‘Mirror exposure effect’– a psychological phenomenon where people are attracted to something purely because they are familiar with it.

Rule #5 Create balance– If the chorus is messy, the part right after it has to be simple. “Like salt and sweet, there needs to be balance and variation to make the song interesting, Max says.”

Key takeaways:

  • Formulas in songwriting aren’t always bad. Sometimes it helps to have creative constraints. Try different templates and formulas to get yourself started writing a song. Break rules once you have a good grasp of what generally works. Especially if you are new to songwriting, these templates can help you get a lay of the land as you grow as a songwriter.
  • You can experiment with his chorus structure even if you prefer a more relaxed approach to coming up with lyrics. Try to think about the lyrics in your chorus based on how many syllables each word has.
  • Employ one of Max’s strategies in the next song you write. Try getting to the chorus within the first 50 seconds of the song.
  • Check out this video by he does an excellent job of explaining melodic math.

Ethan Clift

Ethan is people-facing Co-founder of Tonic Audio Labs. His favorite things to do are sewing, yoga, and his morning ritual of coffee + jaunt at the dog park with the yorkies. His favorite tool is a Nintendo Wii controller Allison hacked for him to use to control a synth during a live performance.