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A simple pop formula that hit #61 on Billboard Charts

Circles uses a simple song (C maj, 120 BPM), simple arrangement (16-bar sections), and simple sound design (Sunflower) to craft a hit.

Post Malone
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C Maj
Post Malone, Frank Dukes, Louis Bell

Key Takeaways

Circles by Post Malone is a very simple pop song. It uses probably the most predictable and basic formula, but it works.

Let me break down the [simple] formula Post Malone is using here:

First, it's in the key of C major. The middle of your keyboard. The easiest key to play in most instruments. The most basic key.

Second, it's 120 BPM. That's literally the default tempo of Ableton, funnily enough.

Third, its arrangement is broken into seven simple sections. Every section is 16-bars long except for the 8-bar bridge.

Fourth, it follows the most basic song structure: Intro, Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

Fifth, the chorus uses a simple step-wise melody that essentially just walks down a scale note by note (more on that later).

The Circles Formula:

  • C Major
  • 120 BPM
  • 16-bar Sections
  • Intro > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus
  • Step-wise melody

There you have it. A simple recipe for a pop song that hit 61 on Billboard's Global 200 list.

The takeaway: You don't have to invent the wheel to write a great song that is interesting, entertaining, and tells a moving story.

With that said, let's see what's going on under the hood.

🔄 Arrangement

  • This song is incredibly simple, but catchy enough to keep me interested the whole time. It's broken into 7 core sections, each of them 16 bars except for the eight-bar bridge.
  • There’s one new sound in V2: A loud snare with extra reverb, during a pause in the beat. Simple changes to the beat can go a long way to keep people interested.

🎹 Chords

  • As you can see below, The chord progression stays almost exactly the same the entire song. The bridge even uses the same main chord progression as the verses, but changes up the instrumentation to make it sound fresh and unique. This looping progression feels very appropriate, since the song is about running in circles.
  • Intro: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7
  • Verse: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7
  • Post-Verse: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7
  • Pre-Chorus: 4M(2) - 5M - 6m7 - 1M(2)
  • Chorus: 4M(2) - 5M - 6m7 - 1M(2)
  • Bridge: 4M - 6m7 - 1maj7 - N.C.

🎶 Melody

  • Post and the songwriters are are experts at writing catchy melodies, and this song is no exception. I see several noteworthy ideas in this melody writing. I'm going back to my Music Theory class in college for these: 
  • Step-Wise Melody: The main chorus melody, arguably the catchiest part of the song, uses steps not leaps, meaning the melody walks down from one note to the next in linear order. In solfege, the melody is Mi re do ti do la sol or E D C B C A G ("Seasons change but our love went cold..."). Some of the best melodies use simple melodies that step down. Major leaps between notes can be harder for inexperienced singers and are too complex sometimes.
  • Saving the High Note for the High-Intensity Moment: The second half of each chorus has a higher note at "I dare you to DO something. I'm waiting on YOU again" (DO and YOU are the peak notes in the chorus). Saving a higher note in your melody for the most intense moment of the song is a powerful technique to emphasize important elements of your message and for the overall vibe of the song. Save the high highs for your chorus.

🔊 Sound Design

  • Huge snare sounds always impress me in Post's songs like this one and Sunflower. He chooses very thick snare sounds (and probably layers several together) and uses this very deep rock drum kit sound.
  • This song is heavily influenced by rock in it's style, instrumentation, and mix. It uses acoustic guitars, electric guitars with a heavy chorus that sounds almost cowboy-like if that makes sense, rock drums, and a classic electric bass sound.
  • Beautiful thick pads in the verses bring in extra energy and also a bit of a modern flavor to the otherwise classy sounding record.

🎛 Mixing

  • Huge reverb on post's voice
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