The ‘Melodic Math’ of Producer Max Martin

Who is Max Martin?

Max is a Swedish producer and writer whose rise to fame began 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. 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 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 last few years that pop and indie had breakout moments that made it seem like there isn’t just one guy churning out songs for all of the major artists. 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 gleaned from Max’s process and formula even if you don’t like pop music. For one, he is the master of the ear worm. And two, he is consistent in his formulaic process and his songs are still at the top.

What I’m talking about 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 he isn’t afraid to break the rules. But just look at his results: seems to be working! Melodic math gives him a repeatable pattern that increases the odds that the songs he writes will be hits. Let’s dig into it a bit.

What is melodic math?

Max Martin’s formula for songwriting. It is a number of principles he sticks by. The first thing you’ll notice is that the principles themselves are not really anything new. It’s his consistency in following these principles that makes him stand out from other top song writers.

Max Martin’s Principles:

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

What matters is making sure the flow and rhythm of the lyrics highlight the melody: if you add one syllable or take it away, it disrupts the flow of the song, according 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.

This is self-explanatory! By following this principle, you’ll write a song people want to sing along to!

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 Rules #2 and #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 complex, 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 Martin

And that’s it! Doesn’t seem to tricky, huh. The only advice he seems to need is to stick to it.

Here’s some 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 Music Nerd Revolution on Youtube. They do an excellent job of explaining melodic math.

Got any songwriting tricks that work for you? Let us know! Email us at hiya@tonicaudiolabs.com.

By Ethan Clift

Ethan is Co-founder and CEO of Tonic Audio. His favorite things to do are sew quilts, make art, make music, and his morning ritual of waking with Evie June, feeding the animals, coffee + a jaunt to the dog park with the pocket-sized yorkies). His favorite tool is a Nintendo Wii controller Allison hacked for him to use to control a synth during live performances.