The alchemy of the perfect pop song, according to the elusive songwriting genius behind hits by Britney Spears and Taylor Swift

Rarely does Max Martin, the elusive Swedish songwriter and producer responsible for the bulk of the world’s smash pop hits in the last two decades, give interviews. When he does, they’re revelatory.

Martin—described fondly by writers and artists as a “master hooksmith” and “music’s magic melody man,” having written 21 songs that have topped the Billboard charts over the course of his career, a number only exceeded by Paul McCartney and John Lennon—chatted with Swedish financial newspaper Dagens Industri in 2016, and the lengthy interview has now finally been translated into English.

In it, he pulls out common features of the chart-topping songs he’s written for everyone from Britney Spears, ‘NSync, and The Backstreet Boys to Taylor Swift and The Weeknd. Music theory enthusiasts will be delighted, as the interview is full of technical details such as Martin explaining how he borrowed the repetition of melodic structures favored by the late Prince to write songs for modern artists like Robyn. Says Martin:

If the chords change a lot over the course of a song, it’s better to stay within the same melodic structure. Once again, it’s all about the balance. Another theory is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse. For instance, take “I Wanna Be Your Lover” with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse. Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have! You’ve heard it in the verse. It automatically creates a sense of familiarity. Prince does this a lot. “Let’s Go Crazy,” same thing. I’ve used this trick a few times myself. In “Do You Know (What It Takes)” with Robyn, for instance.


…and contrast the American icon with the Swedish pop star:

Martin also elaborates on the benefits of keeping out of the spotlight, unlike most of the other names atop Billboard’s hits list (“My life is so much easier without the attention. I meet people who have so many problems related to that kind of stuff”). And then, the most experienced music-maker of the century makes a cultural comment on the pace of music in general:

Dagens Industri: How has the very structure of a pop song changed during the 20 years you’ve been working?

Max Martin: It keeps changing all the time. We’ve just made it out from the marshlands of EDM. Nothing wrong about EDM, great songs came out of it, but there was a period when everything had to have a pace of 128 bpm and be DJ-related… But back to your question: I recently re-watched an old movie that I used to like when it came out. Now that I watched it over, I felt the movie’s tempo. It all felt a bit slow. They showed the whole trip to the airport. Today it’s more, “Boom!” and you’re at the airport.

The same thing has happened to pop music. There’s less downtime. Pop music follows the evolution of society in general: Everything moves faster. Intros have gotten shorter.

While pop music is known to be undyingly repetitive, speed (whether tempo, length, the frequency of hooks and repeated lyrics coming at you within the span of a particular song) does seem to be the one thing that can be counted on to vary, with time. You can hear what Martin means in his own works: Just compare the simple rhythmic catchiness of Britney’s “Baby One More Time” from 1998 to Ariana Grande’s Martin-produced 2016 hit “Into You”—a song so complex that its intricacies have warranted a 50-minute podcast dissection.

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