Some songs seem to please just about anybody, uniting soccer moms, club kids, indie rockers, hop-hop devotees, and everybody else around a common groove.
Taste is notoriously more fragmented than ever these days, because we have more options. Still, every once in a while, a song manages to set everybody’s feet tapping — Outkast’s “Hey-Ya,” Alica Keys and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” and at least two Gnarls Barkley tracks qualify off the top of my head, though the list goes on and on.
What do hit songs have in common over the years, and how are they changing? And what does it all say about who we were, and who we’re becoming?
Two Rutgers master’s degree candidates delved into this with a presentation called “Visualizing a Hit” that maps popular songs against some of their musical attributes in an effort to find out what they share, and how they have changed over time.
Its authors, Tom Engelhardt and Shaun Ellis, explain how the project occurred to them:
With all this wonderful technology present in the 21st century, and boatloads of data sitting on servers all around the world, [we] wonder[ed] if we could analyze hit U.S. pop songs using visualization software and see if there are any formulas/best practices/other cool stuff associated with creating a hit song.
First, they tapped Billboard’s chart data to build a database of over 4,200 popular songs, their peak ranking, Billboard “Hit Status,” and number of weeks they were on the charts.
They then cross-referenced that data against detailed musical information for each song — its key, mode (major, minor, etc.), tempo, loudness, “danceability level,” and “energy level” using data from The Echo Nest. (Disclosure: The Echo Nest, a music intelligence platform, publishes Evolver.fm.)
The resulting study revealed a number of interesting findings – among them, that Madonna is the overall queen of pop, songs are getting longer, louder, dancier and (barely) more energetic, and the optimal number of beats per minute over the past few decades was precisely 119.8:
“Madonna has had 36 songs [in the top 10 and] The Beatles are right behind her with 34″:
“Songs peaking in the top 10 are increasing in danceability”:
Hit songs have grown longer in duration, with lots of fluctuation:
“Interestingly, energy has been trending upwards, though at a very slow, almost unrecognizable rate. Looks like the 1980s were a particularly hyper decade! The ’90s, on the other hand, were… relatively low energy”:
Music is getting compressed into a tiny slice of dynamic range at the loudest end of the loudness spectrum. Basically, hit songs are not only getting louder, but even their quieter moments are amped relatively loud (similar to the way television commercials have traditionally managed to sound louder than programs):
Most hit songs hover around an “optimal figure of 119.80 BPM” (example). “Also, hits between 1976 and 1984 displayed rather mono-rhythmic qualities, with few year averages drifting above or below the golden mark”:
(Images courtesy of Engelhardt and Ellis)