Scholars Attempt to Uncover the Formula of a Hit Song

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Rutgers master’s degree candidates, Tom Engelhardt and Shaun Ellis, tapped into Billboard’s record sales database of over 4,200 popular songs and examined compositional data points of these hits (including: tempo, key, loudness, and danceability, among others) in search of correlations between this compositional elements and record sales performance. The scholars’ purpose: to derive the formula of a hit song. In fact, the results appear to mirror the sounds of many popular radio stations here in the Los Angeles area. For example, their findings indicate hits songs are usually in a major key, have grown longer and longer in duration over the last few decades, and appear to gravitate toward an “optimal figure of 119.80 BPM.” Click here to read the entire work, “Visualizing A Hit.”

If the formula to write a hit song is no longer merely conjecture but rather a verifiable science based on empirical data, this will dramatically effect the future of popular music. For one, valuable conclusions about the purchasing habits of the marketplace can be made. Such conclusions could have major implications on the way future songwriters will compose or which songs record labels are willing to release. It seems only logical that over time major labels would force the degree of variation between “Pop Song A” and “Pop Song B” to grow ever smaller in search of a sweet spot that appeals to the maximum number of listeners (irrespective of the song’s artistic merits, of course). Such a result would effectively be the homogenization of an art form – a process many would argue has been in effect for decades already.

Worse still, if labels placed their trust and financial futures in the effectiveness of the formula by restricting their releases to only those with the greatest probabilities of profitability (as per the all-knowing formula), then the formula would become the self-perpetuating definition of a “hit,” rather than a mere observation.

I don’t take issue with labels looking to make a profit. After all, they’re in the record BUSINESS and if they weren’t in tune with the purchasing habits of their customers they wouldn’t be in the business long. In all likelihood, mega labels already engage in some form of focus group style information gathering and have for some time now.

I do, however, have a fundamental problem with art being cannibalized at the point of creation for want of popularity over substance. To illustrate, consider the issue from the perspective of the artist. Imagine if someone designed an application that could analyze your band’s latest mp3 and spit out a list of suggested compositional changes that would make your song decidedly more viable commercially. Would you make those changes? If you knew a wildly popular group like U2 or Jay-Z had been secretly using this app for years would you think less of them? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

[Photo under Creative Commons license by Joao Trindade http://www.flickr.com/photos/joao_trindade/4363149160/]

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*Ian Gibson, Esq. is an attorney licensed to practice in the state of California. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Visiting iangibson.com does not create an attorney-client relationship. This material may be considered advertising under applicable state laws. Copyright © 2012-2013 Ian Gibson, Esq.

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