How Dopamine Can Make You a Hit

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Great songwriting is rewarded by our brains and makes us physically happy! Yes, you’re reading it right, it’s been proven by scienti?c research… using a “surprise” chord in music makes people physically happy.

What happens is that whenever hearing these chords, our brain delivers us an important neuro transmitter which is thé motivational component of reward- motivated behavior; Dopamine.

Of course, great songwriters and composers knew this all along, from either gut feeling, talent or education… but it’s still great to hear science backing it up. More important: songs with these kind of chords are proven to become hits more often!

So there is a correlation between great chord use and success, becoming a hit!

What really surprises me though, is that the last decade at least, it’s use is minimal in commercials, ?lms and corporate branding.

Using the above information, whenever a company or brand reaches out to new customers, seems so important and logical.. why aren’t more companies using the great Power of Music to build their brand?

And, why are many modern day composers unaware of these so called wonder chords or surprise chords? The answer on the last question is easy; most modern hitmakers can’t play an instrument or never studied music. So they simply lack the knowledge. We are hearing the same chords over and over again in many different songs because there’s a lot of copy/paste going on.

Almost anybody with a computer these days can pretty easily produce a good sounding piece of music. Technology takes care of this.

Don’t get me wrong! Great music has come out since the “laptop musician” came to life!

Tools are not very expensive and YouTube vids explain everyting for free. But, there is an undeniable simpli?cation in music going on where focus is more unto mix instead of writing. (same goes for performance actually).

A lot of hit songs are just 4 chords….. nothing wrong with that since a hit is a track where chords, idea, message, great performance and great mix come together. But where are the days of Queen, The Beatles, David Bowie and Paul Simon to name a few?

Great performances, listening to Freddy Mercury singing in the studio without any Autotune or Melodyne is simply amazing, but also great and exciting songwriting.

These are the songs that will still be great in 100 years and people don’t care too much about the sound of the bassdrum. It’s the message, lyrics, chords, playing and singing that convice… over and over again!

Again, bassdrums are important, if we talk about mix that is. But, again a but… where are the great performances? and more important, where are the exciting new songs that “surprise” us with great writing and amazing chords?

So, what are these chords? and how can we use them?

Some examples will make it all clear. First an oldie: Penny Lane from The Beatles.

If you don’t play music just sing along:

“…Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs, of ev’ry head he’s had the pleasure to know…” C Am7 / Dm7 G7 /C Am7 /Cm7

There it is! Totally out of the blue this Cm chord comes along, wow, what an unexpected surprise. Our brain immediately knows something is going on and starts giving off Dopamine (can you feel it?)

The Beatles then go back to the “normal” musical key and our brain can relax again. The second round though, the last part of the verse they surprise us again. Through the addition of an F chord the Chorus goes to a totally different key! The Chorus is in Bb. Wonderfull writing since it all seems so easy and logical.

Now for something more simple and nowadays. Remember that one hit wonder “Crazy” from Gnarls Barkley? That great falsetto voice over a tight beat and a groovy bass. The key is C minor but for two moments in the song they suddenly go to C major.

These moments are wonderfully surprising and the song really opens up. Chords: Cm / Eb / Ab / G / C

Sing the chorus with me if you please: “Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Possibly And now that you are having the time of your life..”

At the fat printed text the surprise chord occurs… and there you have your hit!

I can give you dozens of great examples but people tell me my blogs are too long.. Some titles then with great chords and hits for sure!

Happy – Pharell (nice switch between major and minor keys)

Our House – Madness (top of the bill songwriting and great lyrics)

Girl From Ipanema – A.Jobim (many chord changes, pure emotion)

We Are The Champions – Queen (classical, amazing songwriting)

Theme music of The Walking Dead – Bear McCreary (that second chord gives us all the creeps!

All of these tracks are wonderfully sung and have great musicians performing. In my opinion this is a great guideline for writing a song:

1 Chords / Idea / Lyrics

2 Performance (best playing, best singing.. that’s what gives us goosebumps

3 Mix

We do however still have to answer the ?rst question from page 2. “Why aren’t more companies using the great Power of Music to build their brand?”

The answer is: they don’t know music can be so important to them. I often ask a CEO; “What’s the sound of your brand?”

99% of the time I get a staring and clueless face. But Global A brands like BMW, Nike, Verizon, VW…. really all know the importance of music, and they all know what their “sound” is!

Brandowners: What if you can give people a happy experience by listening to your commercial, a message by your brand!! With the right music, people will recieve Dopamine!

That’s amazing isn’t it? It will make your brand a hit!

People will associate your product with being happy and feeling great. And with the combination of a great song and your brand, you can be found not only on YT and Facebook, but also in the charts on Spotity and iTunes.

Music really is the Holy Grail in marketing communication!

Just connect to a great composer and put Music First. Find your Sound and then start communicating your message to the world…….

Erwin Steijlen

About the author:

Erwin is a composer for brands, artists and media with over 17 years of experience. He’s worked with hundreds of the biggest brands worldwide. Companies such as BMW and VW, artists like Pink!, Shakira and Cirque du Soleil. He has written music for Tour the France, Glow and Beijing Olympics.

Erwin is the founder of Totally Tuned; a Platform and Masterclass for talented producers and composers. Through an innovative platform talents will be connected to the business world. All companies looking for music can ?nd their sound here.

He teaches Songwriting and Media Composing at ArtEZ, Institute of the Arts and organizes events to help creative entrepreneurs and the business world to find each other and connect.

Erwin is author of “Corporate Music Method, How To Make Money with Music”. Available on and Amazon

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