Can songwriters pinch the proven techniques of Max Martin and Taylor Swift to pen Top 10 hits?

Credit: Tinseltown/Shutterstock
Asaf Peres, who holds two Ph.Ds in music, says that Taylor Swift hits such as 'Blank Space', 'Anti-Hero', and 'Shake It Off' all use recognizable melodic techniques

Asaf Peres is a doctor of music.

The East-Coast-based academic holds doctoral degrees (aka Ph.Ds) in both music composition and music theory. But unlike many in his field, who turn their intellectual curiosity towards classical or jazz music, Peres is consumed by a more mainstream concern: Pop.

Last year, in an interview with MBW, Peres explained how his online ‘Melodic Math’ course – from his company Top40 Theory – breaks down techniques used by Max Martin, one of the most successful hitmakers of all time, to construct giant chart smashes.

‘Melodic Math’ aims to teach its songwriter students how to use the creative and psychological tools behind Martin’s consistent pop mastery.

Much of the course covers the tangible nitty-gritty of hits, and Peres isn’t afraid to get technical – from hooks to pitch contrasts, melody recycling, chord progressions, harmony and tonality, etc.

But ‘Melodic Math’ also goes further, says Peres, into the realm of how to “tap into the listener’s subconscious brain”.

A specific example: Katy Perry’s E.T. , a 2011 Max Martin co-write that reached No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Peres points out that the verse and chorus melodies of E.T are “identical”, with Martin and his co-writers cleverly “distracting” the listener from this fact by using the contrasting pre-chorus as a buffer, as well as changing various aspects around the identical melodies, such as the chord progression, lyrical phrasing, production, and even Perry’s vocal delivery technique.

“By using the pre-chorus and other contrasts to shield listeners from realizing that the verse and chorus melodies are the same, it ensures that listeners maintain an ‘emotional experience’, rather than an ‘intellectual experience,” says Peres. “This allows [Max Martin and his co-writers] to target the subconscious mind of the listener.”

“By shielding listeners from realizing that the verse and chorus melodies are the same, [Max Martin] ensures that listeners maintain an ‘emotional experience’, rather than an ‘intellectual experience’.”

Asaf Peres, Top40 Theory

Breakdowns like this have won Peres and his tutorials plaudits from hit songwriter/producers including Lindgren (Dua Lipa, BTS), Dan Wilson (Adele, Taylor Swift), and Charles ‘Chizzy’ Stephens III (JLo, Justin Bieber).

Dre The Monarch, who has worked with Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj, and Kelly Clarkson, says of Peres: “Asaf’s tangible examples and in-depth breakdowns of well-known songs make it very easy for me to internalize the tools and tricks of the songwriting greats, and utilize them to improve my own writing and producing.”

Peres is now re-launching his ‘Melodic Math’ songwriting course for a fresh run starting in April 2024. (Those interested in learning more/applying can click through here.)

Following his interview with MBW last year, says Peres, his April 2023 course was quickly over-subscribed: while 20 students were enrolled in the course, he had to turn away over 40 applicants.

(In addition to live online seminars about songwriting techniques, Peres hosts group music feedback sessions for ‘Melodic Math’ students, meaning he has to keep numbers relatively tight. He also offers one-on-one lesson packages as an add-on, but warns that these are “extremely limited, with highly experienced songwriters prioritized”.)

One of the ten live 90-minute online seminars of ‘Melodic Math’ involves Peres breaking down how to write “melodic previews”, one of the most effective techniques in the ‘Melodic Math’ toolbox.

Similar to Max Martin in E.T, “melodic previews” see songwriters recycle parts of a key hook in a single song. The effect? By the time a chorus swings around, these elements are already familiar to the listener.

Peres says that “melodic previews” have featured in numerous iconic hits over decades, from Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, through nearly every single on Katy Perry’s hit album, Teenage Dream.

Unsurprisingly for a pop music obsessive, Peres also brings up-to-date chart hits into play when drilling into the key components of modern hit songwriting.

Peres says that “melodic previews” have been deployed in recent chart-topping hits such as Cruel Summer and Anti-Hero by the world’s biggest megastar – Taylor Swift – plus Unholy by Sam Smith & Kim Petras, and Set Me Free by Twice.

Another ‘hooking technique’ is the ‘Rocket & Feather’ technique, another a Max Martin specialty. With ‘Rocket & Feather’, the melody leaps up – ‘rockets’ – and this is followed with a gradual downturn, or the ‘feather’.”

Asaf Peres, Top40 Theory

Peres’ course also covers what he calls “hooking techniques” for songwriters, including the so-called ‘FuelCore’ technique – in which a melody oscillates between slower (core) and faster (fuel) fragments.

Once again, he says, Max Martin is a master of this art, deploying it in No.1 hits such as Teenage Dream by Katy Perry, So What by Pink, and – most recently – Yes, And? by Ariana Grande.

The ‘FuelCore’ technique also makes a very noticeable appearance, Peres suggests, in the Martin/Taylor Swift co-write, Shake It Off.

“The ‘FuelCore’ technique creates a repetitive tension and release scheme, highlighting the very catchiest lyrics,” Peres explains.

Adds Peres: “Another ‘hooking technique’ we cover is the ‘Rocket & Feather’ technique, which again is a Max Martin specialty. With ‘Rocket & Feather’, the melody leaps up – ‘rockets’ – and this is followed with a gradual downturn, or the ‘feather’.”

The ‘Rocket & Feather’ technique, says Peres, is apparent in one other Taylor Swift smash, co-penned with Max MartinBlank Space.

Despite his confidence in the benefits of his course for professional and professionally-aspiring songwriters, Peres refutes the idea that ‘Melodic Math’ constitutes a “silver bullet” for writing guaranteed Billboard Hot 100 hits.

“This isn’t about the ‘rules’ of art, because they don’t exist,” he says. “The course is designed to highlight creative techniques that helped existing hits stand out, and to explain why they were effective for specific songs.

“We turn the spotlight on techniques that have been used in multiple hits, and suggest why adopting these techniques might add to any individual songwriter’s arsenal of creative tools and increase their ‘batting average’.”

Adds Peres: “Learning patterns or techniques that have worked for others in the past can only enhance someone’s songwriting palette. But prescribing a template for writing hit songs – the idea that it ‘must be done this way’ – rarely ends well.

“At the end of the day, great pop songs, and singing along to them, are an outlet for listeners to express deep-seated emotions that perhaps they wouldn’t be so comfortable expressing in everyday life situations.

“The greatest songwriters in history are great because they can drown out the noise of what a stereotypical hit song ‘should’ sound like and create something that sounds fresh. They tap into their own personal, emotional world and use that to create songs people can relate to and that feel authentic.

“The ‘Melodic Math’ techniques help to deliver this in a way that will get listeners to notice and remember the songs, and lure them into singing along – but it has to start from that very personal place.”Music Business Worldwide