January 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm

What Makes a Hit Song? Science Tries to Find the Answer.

Hits are generally getting louder, among other things (more charts below).

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”:

See the full “Visualizing a Hit” presentation for more charts and some nifty visualizations.

(Images courtesy of Engelhardt and Ellis)

  • Art Flaccus

    There have been many attempts to codify what makes a hit song. For my money, one measure is how much abuse and humiliation it can withstand without losing its structural integrity. Take a look at what this duo do to this famous tune to see what I mean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zP5ggZRsNh8

  • Mj & The Michael James Band

    One of my songs won the Audy Award saying the same thing. I think it could be a good thing but wha now?


  • Jburroway

    What can this kind of analysis tell us about the lyrics, the rhyming patterns, the social content and attitudes. A separate study, I suppose…

  • R Patterson93

    I believe the song lyrics tell the story about a hit song. Without a singer with a good voice and good lyrics means no HITS!!!! I write song lyrics that pertain to the world we live in. This includes love, happiness and everything else. I need a singer so we can make some HITS!!!! Believe me, I know what’s happenin’.



  • damesha washington

    Well to me, a hit song just depends on who your trying to please. Now its easier to get a hit song all you need is a catchy beat and some lyrics that don’t make sense. I don’t what it is but music has really changed. Music used to be a way of expressing feelings.

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  • Prideandthevanities

    then please explain KESHA ?

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  • Music_lifesings

    As for getting your songs officially published, i know you can go to the Court house in Washington DC.  and if you are still looking for a singer to sing your songs heres some basic background of myself.

    I am an female artist with a powerful singing voice and i am ready to share my talent with the world.  I have no money or people to sponser me on my musical journeys.  However,  I am very coachable, i listen well, it doesn’t take long for me to memorize a bit in a song.

    About my voice, 
    I am experienced in singing Hip hop, and R&B music.  As well as a bit of pop.  I am currently a freshman in college who is majoring in Music Performance (Vocal and Instrumental)  I sing in my church choir and i have a powerful voice.  

    I know you said in your earlier posts that you are ready for real celebrities to get in on your music and perform for you.  Well, i am ready to get up to their level and help the person who mentors me and sponser’s me to the top.

    If you are interested in setting up a meeting via skype or even on facebook chat. please don’t hesitate to email me.
    music_lifesings yahoo.com 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BGLFRARHYUXS2ISGE2H3AS72OM Dary R

    Im a singer, I would like to know more of your work.  Please contact darixa01@yahoo.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/slancemb Steven Lance

    Its not just the words or just the singer – PLEASE FOLLOW ME ON THIS AS CONFUSING AS IT MAY SEEM – i.e. Chicken Alfredo… is amazing. Some would argue that the Chicken is what makes Chicken Alfredo. Its the most important part. It has to be cooked right and juicy and cut right. But seriously, its just chicken. Yes chicken is great by itself, but its no meal (KFC EXCLUDED)- and its no Chicken Alfredo. First of all, C.A. is a PASTA dish, not a chicken dish, the Pasta is the real main part. The right noodles for the right textures need to be decided and they need to be cooked perfectly, not overcooked and not undercooked – just like the chicken. Now comes the sauce, Alfredo is a perfect blend of Cream, Butter, Garlic, Parsley, And Parmesan Cheese, all of which need to be pasteurized/ grown and processed independently, before you then MIX them into a perfect blend with the noodles. Once your pasta is done you THEN add the chicken in, now whether the chicken is grilled or fried is really the flavor type of your choosing. Where the chicken comes from, its story, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that in the end you have Chicken Alfredo. 

    The Chicken obviously is your song lyrics and words, yes they have to be good but really as long as they are in an amazing pasta (song) with a great blend (melody) it doesn’t matter weather its fried or grilled or baked. Now, it can’t be DRY or OVERCOOKED or BURNT, I give you that, so its still gotta be pretty good chicken (vocals) – but it doesn’t make or break a hit. Now the noodles – are the beat and form – the foundation of the groove of the song, the melodic backbone. The Alfredo is all of the instruments - their players being the pasteurization. The mixture of them – the actual mix of the song. Now trust me, as a producer, the mix is just as important as everything else. 

    To say chicken is what makes Chicken Alfredo, is absurd. To say a songs lyrics is what makes a hit song, is also, my good sir, absurd. 

    Now, I want some Chicken Alfredo, excuse me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.chastain Joseph Chastain

    Lyrics are for people that don’t understand music. There are tons of songs with crappy lyrics that become hits, and plenty with good lyrics that no one remembers three minutes after their written.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.chastain Joseph Chastain

    And BTW if it’s good lyrics and good “voices” (there are barely five singers out today that have anything close to “good” voices btw) how do you explain Creed?

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.chastain Joseph Chastain

    Hate both “Empire State Of Mind” and “Hey ya” their incredibly juvenile, unmusical messes. So there blows that theory that “everybody” likes those songs.


  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.chastain Joseph Chastain

    Great post and exactly right. 

  • Vpromusic

    Where do you live?
    Contact me vpromusic@gmail.com

  • Caesar

    A&R’s and Music executives love to hear music with Dance-ability and high energy!

  • Caesar

    If u got a Hot Record (Single(s) send some to sghmusic@gmail.com for our A&R Team to listen. Looking for background singers for Major Artist tours.
    UMG /Bluewater /CEO BRAND Musichouse 2013

  • king solomon

    music has lost it momentum now,,compare to the 60,70 and 80. since the fall of the Beatles, the death of bob Marley, the death of Michael Jackson, the death of whitey Houston, music have lost it sweetness, the musicians of today are not playing good music , the world is not enjoying good music now.

  • king solomon

    music of the 60,70.80 are better than that of the 90.and 2000 and 2013. music have lost the happiness now, can you compare Michael Jackson, bob Marley, Whitney his ton and the Beatles music to that of to day, music have lost it taste,

  • Noah Fence

    The market follows trends set by others. The labels push product that they believe will work (danceability etc) with an image they can exploit. They pile millions of dollars into their formula and continue to do so until something convinces them to change. Percentage wise there are very few massive hits that weren’t backed by major label spending..They buy advertising space (billboards, online, in store, magazines etc), they buy airtime on key stations, they pay a fortune for radio pluggers / promoters (guys on phones calling in requesting songs on radio and cds in stores), they control distribution (all forms until recently), they control the award shows and partner with movie companies to include their tracks (yes, paying them) and they own the publishing avenues. So write a hit song and send it to radio, and then tell me what changed in your life? Nada, nothing. Take a hit as written and produced for a Katy Perry etc and get your builder to star in the video – see if it comes to anything.

  • tattee

    Perfect! :) Now i’m hungry

  • Cody Furguson

    Ideally the words and music should be great. But there are a lot of songs where the lyrics are silly (like “Hey Ya” or “Da Do Do Do”) and they’re still really good songs. That’s why it’s called music, not lyrics.