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The Uptown Funk 70/30 Principle

March 17, 2015

The Uptown Funk 70/30 Principle
How to Write an Accessible & Durable Hit Song
By Geoff Stephen

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Dad/DJ of The Year?

Uptown Funk is inescapable these days.  I couldn’t be more pleased.

For the past week or two, my daughter has been requesting Uptown Funk when we’re in the car.

Although not having an on-demand copy of the song might seem problematic, by quickly scanning the radio, I’ve been able to fulfill her request (without exaggeration) about 70% of the time.

The song’s ubiquity has made me appear somewhat magical, at least every 7 out of 10 tries!

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After these Uptown Funk-finding successes (I’ll put my DJ/Dad of the year commemorative coffee mug aside for the moment), I started to wonder about the song’s widespread & enduring popularity.

What is it about Uptown Funk?  Sure, it’s upbeat & catchy but the same could be said for countless pop hits.

Of equal importance, why am I not sick of it yet?  Most smash hits reach over-saturation pretty quickly but for me, this one somehow hasn’t been enhanced or diminished through repeated (and emphasis on repeated) exposure.

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People will talk about an elusive secret formula for writing a hit song.  Usually, I’d imagine this sort of talk is in jest.

But today, I jest you not – I think Mark Ronson & friends have actually stumbled upon that Holiest of Holy Grails in the music business: The Hit Song Formula.

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What Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars realized

For a song to capture a compulsive-channel-changing radio listener’s attention, it needs to sound familiar.  At least familiar enough to prevent them from hitting the next preset button.

However, if it starts to sound too familiar, that’s a problem too.

Too original?  Won’t get noticed.  Too derivative?  Will get noticed…by the lawyers representing the original artists & their source material.

So a mix of old & new then.

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The Uptown Funk 70/30 Principle

Although equal parts old & new might seem reasonable, the 50/50 split would inevitably sound like a compromise, it would sound middle-of-the-road and thus, sound forgettable.

Instead, a 70/30 split provides the optimal balance in 2 ways:

1. By giving the dial-switchers the instant pleasure (something familiar) that they seek, you’ve got their attention.

2. Once hooked, new ideas can be added to the existing framework.  These original ideas are what will eventually boost the song’s longevity.

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How They Did It

Sagely, the songwriters here borrowed from multiple sources.

If the lineage of the tune can’t be traced directly, the risk of litigation can be mitigated.  Admittedly, I’m not too well versed in copyright law, but I don’t recall a case where a plaintiff successfully sued somebody for inspiring 15% of a song.

The individual Uptown Funk percentages have yet to be formally disclosed (and I’ve intentionally avoided any sort of research into the actual Uptown Funk-credited songwriters), but I suspect the 70/30 mix went something like this:

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20% Jimmy Ray, Are You Jimmy Ray?
Don’t believe me, just read on.  Tubthumping notwithstanding, was there a bigger earworm in the late 90s?  Kudos to Bruno & co. here for their restraint in pursuit of a hit.  Getting in people’s heads is important but driving them crazy (à la Are You Jimmy Ray?) is less desirable in the long-term.

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20% Robbie Williams, Rock DJ
A large enough percentage to provide sufficient swagger but small enough to keep (appealing) confidence from deteriorating into (unappealing) conceited territory.  Audience participation through easily memorized call-backs never hurts either.

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15% The Commodores, Brick House
Perhaps the most immediate of the source material, carefully employed to set the tone without sliding into pastiche.

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15% Ray Parker Jr., Ghostbusters
Any more would be cheesy, anything less, to quote a 90s Charles Barkley commercial, would be uncivilized.

Which leaves 30% for purely original material, including a pair of song-making vocal hooks (“Don’t believe me just watch” and the “Uptown Funk You Up” breakdown).

Easy peasy!

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The Next Uptown Funk?

Your guess is as good as mine but I’d imagine if you deconstruct the eventual hit tune, The 70/30 Uptown Funk Principle will apply.

Now, there will always be exceptions to the rule, such as Outkast’s impressively (still) unique Hey Ya!, and the theory’s still a work in process of course.

Chances are, somebody’s already had a similar idea, perhaps my essay is unintentionally 70% not-so-original too?

In any event, the more I think about this (shoddily-researched/purely-speculative) how-to-write-a-hit-song-process, the more I think this 70/30 ratio works!

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29 Comments
  1. This is the first time I’ve ever heard this song. Upon hearing it, I instantly thought of Prince and WHAM!.

    • How did I miss Prince?!
      And when I hit publish, I realized I forgot about the Michael Jackson parallels too – so perhaps 70/30 is the right mix, but the 70’s made up of even more influences!

  2. I never get tired of the song, can’t help but feel good when it’s on.

  3. Never heard it and am afraid to now.

    • It’s beyond catchy – but you’re right, perhaps it’s safest to not hear at all. I’m guilty of singing the michelle pfeiffer line like a broken record!

  4. Brilliant post Geoff. Jimmy Ray!! Cudos for you for remembering THAT!

    Wait…ARE you Jimmy Ray??

    • haha, who wants to know?!

      • I always laughed at that line of the song. Nobody wanted to know. Shouldn’t have asked, Jimmy Ray!

      • And that they kept getting his name slightly incorrect with Johnny and other variations, ridiculous.
        I remember liking his attitude though: when asked about the timeless nature of the song, he said people will be using his cd as coasters in 6 months.
        He was right, but I appreciated his self-deprecating accuracy!

      • Yeah can’t fault him for that. Hey, he’s had more hits than me….

        I’m not a big fan of modern pop rock, but guys like Mark Ronson and Pharrell Williams are scientists when it comes to composing a “hit”. I think you nailed it with this article. You found the formula or at least a reasonable facsimile.

      • My thanks Mike – weezer’s Pork & Beans had the line, “timbaland knows the way to reach the top of the charts, maybe if I work with him I can perfect the art.”

        Writing the hit song feels a bit like getting the top result on a google search page – some people, like the producer scientists you mentioned, have figured out the formula!

      • That bothers me about Weezer. But at least Rivers has always been open about it.

        The thing is songwriters will always say, 99% of the time, “There is no musical hit formula, if there was, don’t you think I’d do it every time?” But that’s the thing — they TRY every time, for sure. Just like a golfer they don’t always score a hole in one. But they have the resources, the connections, the knowledge and the chops to get it on the green every time.

      • Well said – I find that with baseball too, the best hitter in the last century hit somewhere around .400 – meaning he failed 6 out of 10 trips to the plate!

      • Baseball? That’s Greek to me.

  5. Hackskeptic permalink

    It is a brilliant song, I agree and your associations are spot on! Mark Ronson seems to know how to get the best from his collaborators. Amy Winehouse, for example benefited from his input and produced arguably her best music.

    • My thanks Hackskeptic!
      Ronson was new to me with this song but I just checked his CV, that’s an impressive production list. Nice point about the producers being collaborators, they can make a big difference, for better or worse. Better here!

      • I’m still mad at him for having a name that sounds too much like the great Mick Ronson.

  6. I haven’t actually heard this before. I have to admit to liking a fair bit of Ronson’s stuff (aside from Version) – he clearly knows how to spin a web of infectious sounds.

  7. Wardy permalink

    Kids and I were discussing this very song last week, and to my ears there’s some classic Huey Lewis And The News in there too. But that might just be the Ghostbusters connection you pointed out as most would know Huey and crew successfully sued ol’ Ray Parker for his copy of their I Want A New Drug for that one anyways!? Oh and def some Jacko in there too \m/

    Cool read 🙂

    • I’d forgotten about the Huey/Ghostbusters connection – now that I’m singing it, I hear it! And if we’re counting the music video, the MJ percentages definitely start to climb even higher – thanks for reading!

  8. I love Uptown Funk, and this post is so great!! Congratulations on the Dad/Dj accomplishment!

  9. Sara permalink

    All I can hear is “Jungle Love” by Morris Day and the Time. Especially around the chorus.

    • I hadn’t heard that tune before – but I definitely hear the resemblance, thanks for sharing!

  10. My ten year old daughter LOVES this song. But then, her favorite music is Michael Jackson and Taylor Swift (gag). I have liked Mark Ronson since his Amy Winehouse days. There are certainly more annoying songs out there.

    • I certainly support her MJ interest sourgirl!
      Uptown Funk’s a neat song how it seems to be able to appeal to 4-year olds & 40-year olds

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