Anatomy of a Hit Song (2000–2018)

Many before me have tried to find the formula for the perfect pop song. From academics who analyze the acoustic complexity of popular music, to famed produces who’ve learned which heuristics work and which don’t.

My interest in the problem began when I saw this infographic:

It shows that many characteristics are shared by the hit songs from the 1950s to the 2000s.

There have been 221 number one songs on the Billboard Top-100 chart since Jan 1, 2000. I decided to use data that I’ve collected from Spotify, Billboard and other sources to see what updates can be made to these conclusions. What is the anatomy of a hit song in the last two decades?

Female Artists are More Dominant

Although only 41.6% of the number 1 songs came from female-fronted acts, the artists with the most hits tend to be women. If we ascribe Destiny’s Child songs to Beyonce, then the top 3 artists are all women (Rihanna and Katty Perry being the other two)

Rock Songs aren’t Hits

Although country, rock, and electronic dance music (edm) are well represented on the Top-100 charts, they have only a tiny percentage of the hits. If you want to make it to number 1, then rap, r&b or pure pop are the way to go.

Hit Songs are all about 3–5 Minutes Long

As with all popular media, keeping it short and simple seems to work best.

Lyrics Emphasize ‘Like’

The lyrics of number one songs are easy to guess. Some variation of “you know I like it baby yeah” tends to do well.

Of course, using these words doesn’t guarantee a hit. Despite being the platonic ideal of an empty pop song, Enrique Iglesias’ “(Baby) I Like It” only reached number 4 on the charts.

Hit Songs are Happy and Danceable

In general, there isn’t much difference between the audio features of all Billboard Hot-100 songs and the ones that reach the top of the chart. There are two exceptions. The valence of a hit song, or its positivity (happiness) is noticeably higher for the hits.

Similarly, hit songs seem to be significantly more danceable.

Tempo is Trimodal

Surprisingly, there isn’t one perfect number for the beats-per-minute for a hit song. Looking at all of the chart-toppers, it seems that there are three distinct, groups clustered around 95 bpm, 130 bpm, and 170bpm respectively.

Other Interesting Facts

Some other findings that came from looking at the number one songs of the last 18 years are below.

  • 96% of hit songs use the 4/4 time signature
  • There are 491 words in the lyrics of the average chart-topper (MG Siegler has the right idea)
  • The average hit song title is 2.57 words
  • The most common key of a hit is C or C#/D
  • 60.5% of hit songs are on a major scale

So, if you want to write a song that will reach that rareified air at the top of the charts remember — keep it simple, make it dancy and happy, and most of all, it doesn’t hurt to be a woman.

Married engineer in San Francisco. Interested in words, networks, and human abstractions. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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