Secrets of the pop song – new 3 part BBC documentary

Secrets of the pop song – new 3 part BBC documentary

UK broadcaster BBC Two has launched a three part series which explores the process of songwriting. Secrets Of The Pop Song follows the pen to paper to first public performance. Each episode sees songwriter, producer and musician Guy Chambers, collaborating with an artist to write a new song each week — a ballad, an anthem and a breakthrough single, with a variety of celebrated musical contributors divulging the secrets of the trade along the way. Acclaimed singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright joins Guy to write a ballad, The Noisettes link up with him in the studio for the anthem programme and music producer Mark Ronson works alongside him to create a breakthrough single. The series hears from songwriting big-hitters throughout, including Sting, Brian May, Boy George, Neil Tennant, Jessie J and Diane Warren.The link takes you to the BBC iPlayer version of episode one. Only people based in the UK will be able to access the iPlayer recording of the program. Hopefully in time it will appear on YouTube. In the meantime, I’ve written up some detailed notes of the learning from the first episode. I hope that there will be plenty here that you can take into the writing of worship songs. If you find this post helpful please comment below and I’ll do the same for programme’s two and three.


Episode 1 explores the production of the ballad. Rufus Wainwright (who Elton John has described as one of the greatest living songwriters) joins writer Guy Chambers (Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and countless others) to write a ballad. The programme intersperses the journey of their new song with observations from various writers and performers reflecting on the art of the ballad – the biggest and most successful genre in pop. For the sake of being able to skim an hours’ programme into a short blog post I’ve summarised these here:

  • It needs to be emotional – make you cry, laugh, hug someone (Jessie J)
  • It needs to be accessible to lots of people (Guy Chambers)
  • It tells of torture, pain and more pain
  • The secret is to feel the pain
  • Don Black (writer of Born Free, Diamonds are Forever and Ben) says that it works when the listener can say “I felt that”. His song Ben (a story about a boy with leukaemia and a pet rat retold as a ballad of friendship) contains the middle 8 lyrics “I used to say I and me, Now its Us, Now its We” which were apparently Michael Jackson’s all time favourite lyric.
  • Accessible lyrics
  • Lyrics that say something fresh about the human condition (rather than “You don’t love me any more”, “You’ve lost that loving feeling”)
  • Diane Warren says that its about finding a new way of saying something that’s been said many times before. She wrote the lyric “Unbreak my heart” for Toni Braxton
  • Writing about what you really know yourself – and the more revealing you can be in terms of personal confession, the more successful your song is likely to be. Boy George said “Being personal is what its about. You should always write something that means something, Artists need to be connected to what they write and sing about.” Songs such as those of Abba writing about their little soap operas. “Beyond the cheesy infectious pop, there was an underbelly of emotion”
  • Sting reflects on his song Every Breath You Take, written in the aftermath of the break up of his first marriage. He confesses that the chord sequence was lifted from Stand By Me, the lyrics easily pulled from a rhyming dictionary and yet, the song has been hugely successful with something like the equivalent of 150 years continuous airplay. He says that the song has something about it that people respond to – its romantic and seductive, and yet has a compulsion to the point of being sinister (the song is basically about stalking an ex). Guy Chambers reflects that the song takes a single line and changes a single word. Its a neat trick that the ear likes as the song leads you along. Sting says that the simple songs are the best, however being simple is far from easy.
  • Mixing “hard and soft” (Lennon and McCartney) can work well. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys discussed his lyric from Rent “Look at my hopes, Look at my dreams, The currency we’ve spent. I love you, You pay my rent”. The tune is soft and pretty, the lyrics hard hitting
  • Big key changes are a common feature of power ballads
  • The bridge is common to most pop and worship songs – its role is to provide a signpost and an audible “lift” anticipating the chorus.


  • Yesterday
  • Candle in the Wind
  • Everybody Hurts (apparently the song most likely to make men cry)

Ballads are the songs chosen at weddings and funerals. They typically speak of finding and losing love.

Types of ballad:

  • Soul ballads – When a Man Loves a Woman, Halo
  • Folk ballads – The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face
  • Power ballads – The Power of Your Love
  • Hymn ballads – Angles (uses very conventional choral type chords)

Ballads have been part of our musical heritage for thousands of years with many examples from medieval times. The diarist Samuel Pepys collected hundreds of ballads . Their themes include love, love lost, loves hurt, undying love, hidden love. Amidst worries about plague and death, what people wanted to hear were songs and tales about why their true love had left.

Even 100 years ago Vaughan Williams was collecting ballads. One from his selection is called The Power of Love – a title well used in contemporary music by the likes of Huey Lewis, Jennifer Rush and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Rufus and Guy get to work on their ballad. Guy plays three possible piano riffs. Rufus selects one and hums a melody over it, occasionally interspersing words. Once the bones of the song (a verse, chorus and bridge) is outlined the instruments are added in layers – keys, guitar, strings (in this case a fabulous harp) and lastly live drums. Guy reflects how the addition of rhythm can often change a song into something else. Lastly, the background vocals are added providing colour and support to the lead vocal. The song (called World War Three) is then beefed up with some additional orchestration. Guy employs a “4 minute rule” and insists that all his songs are complete within 240 seconds. It appears to work with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture sampled at the end rather than a lengthy repeat of a bridge or chorus.

Guy and Rufus spent just two days together working on their song. In that time it is written, recorded and also piloted with a stripped back version at a live performance. I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. It offers an insight into an art form that surrounds us and also a better understanding of the working of the artists involved. Hopefully you can learn something to plough into your craft as a worship song writer and musician.

Rufus Wainwright’s finished song is showcased in the clip below.