TikTok Is Changing the DNA of Hit Songs, and Artists Are Taking Note

Berklee songwriters explain how the smallest details of a song’s structure and themes can help musicians connect with users on the career-launching app.

October 24, 2023

Rosie Scher ’20 was a student at Berklee when she had a viral TikTok hit in 2020 with “Never the 1.” The song launched her career and landed her a deal with Arista Records.

When Scher first posted "Never the 1" to TikTok, she wasn't writing to crack the algorithm—she was just trying to keep releasing music and build an audience through the early days of the pandemic. "I just had a huge vault full of songs, and I realized that I could sustain posting one a day for about three months," she says.

It so happened that Scher's hook, and its use of a memorable count-down structure, caught the wave of a massive trend on the platform. "I call them TikTok hooks," she says of choruses featuring numbers or ABCs. "They're very specific to TikTok in that moment."

Measuring Success on TikTok

Rosie Scher

Rosie Scher ’20

Image courtesy of the artist

As Scher came to discover with her record contract, the trends and hooks that rise to the top of the TikTok algorithm can have a massive impact on artists' careers, and on the broader culture. What’s trending on TikTok now impacts TV, radio, streaming services, and everywhere else music is consumed.

However, the platform is also world unto itself, independent from the music industry’s traditional metrics for success. This is why the new Billboard TikTok Top 50 chart, launched last month, was created: to track music discovery and engagement on the social media powerhouse, whose most successful content seems to operate by a separate set of creative rules.

“TikTok has become the discovery platform for artists today,” says Rodney Alejandro, chair of Berklee’s Songwriting Department. “This new chart is a significant development in how artists find their place in the industry, because a lot of these songs aren't on the radio or on television. A lot of these songs are solely living in the ether of the internet, and TikTok is a great place to see how they're doing.”

Get to the Chorus

Ralph Jaccodine, assistant professor of music business/management, highlights TikTok’s capacity to cater to users’ appetite for a song’s most addictive elements. “The success of TikTok has to do with a lot of AI, and figuring out what people want, and figuring out how to expand and explode a song, and get global reach for that,” he says. “The platform has more than a billion active users. . . . That's a lot of power."

One way songwriters are approaching the challenge of giving TikTok users what they want involves reconfiguring the traditional pop song structure. TikTok moves fast, demanding that songwriters capture their audience’s attention right from the start.

But there’s an art to achieving this. “You have to be very selective about what you introduce first,” Alejandro says. “It can't be too complicated. It has to be super catchy, really fast.”

Since the chorus is typically the catchiest part of the song, many songwriters choose to lead with it on TikTok, but Alejandro cautions against revealing too much of the chorus upfront. Instead, he says, it should leave listeners curious to hear more.

Tell us your main idea for the song that would normally be three minutes—tell us what it's going to be in 30 seconds.

— Rodney Alejandro, Chair, Songwriting Department

While catchy hooks help draw in listeners, song structures are evolving to emphasize and enhance these elements. Over the last decade, the bridge has largely vanished, and the second verse isn’t far behind. Consider Nicky Youre’s viral hit "Sunroof," whose structure consists of a chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, instrumental interlude, pre-chorus, and chorus.

“It's just focusing on the fun parts of a song, and that's becoming the formula,” says Alejandro, pointing out that the songs that charted on the first TikTok Billboard Top 50 are light and accessible both in structure and subject matter, and steer clear of serious themes.

Teaching for TikTok

Rodney Alejandro 2

Rodney Alejandro, chair of the Songwriting Department

Professors in Berklee's Songwriting Department have been keeping a close eye on how TikTok is changing the way songs are written, and they've expanded the curriculum to make sure students know how to write and arrange for the platform. Students will not, however, be exempt from learning the core storytelling and songwriting techniques that they’ll need to write a complete song.

“We already talk about how song form has to adapt, especially if you're a new artist,” says Alejandro. “Tell us your main idea for the song that would normally be three minutes—tell us what it's going to be in 30 seconds.”

Does this make a songwriter faster? Alejandro says that is a debate in the department. Some schools of thought favor a more traditional approach—the more whole songs artists write, the stronger their writing becomes. Upper-level songwriting students are now also being asked to write more mini songs that are later expanded.

Although TikTok is the latest platform to shake up the music industry, Alejandro says it's probably not the last: “Maybe in three to five years there's going to be another, but it all pretty much works the same—the platform begins to dictate the creative process.”

Jaccodine has also been staying on top of the shifts in the business over the years, and believes that TikTok isn't necessarily upending the fundamentals to developing a successful career.

“A TikTok hit is good,” he said. “But it doesn't make a career, and it doesn't make you rich. It's what you do with that. Can you do it again? Can you keep that audience coming back to listen to you?”

Looking Toward the Next Viral Hit

It’s been three years since Scher posted “Never the 1” on TikTok, and doors have continued to open for her as a result of that initial breakout moment. Most recently, she was asked to cowrite a song for Celine Dion called “Love Again.”

Reflecting on Billboard’s latest efforts to measure songs’ popularity on the platform, she’s optimistic. She says she thinks the TikTok Top 50 chart will expand, not reduce, what songs can be.

“What I see on the chart is a lot of diversity,” she said. “Diversity in the types of songs, and in the types of artists and genres. The way in which it can change songwriting is by giving songwriters more freedom.”

Watch Rosie Scher's official video for "Never the 1":