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The Twelve Keys to a Hit Song

The researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs.

A picture of music making by Sebastiaan ter Burg

The US-leaning data-skew pokes a hole through the middle of this research you could fly a plane through.

Analysing the key themes of hit songs over the past 50 years makes sense. Relating them to historical events, less so. Did ‘Inspriational’ themes leap to the top of the list in the ’00s due to the September 11th attacks?

Or perhaps it was because the US was so doggedly slow on the uptake with dance music, and took a decade to reflect what had been happening in European pop for much of the 90s.

Only love can set you free.
I can move, move, move any mountain.
The only way is up.
I’ve got the power.
Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good).
No
No.
No
No
No
No.
No
No
No
No.
No
No.
There’s No Limit.


Researchers from North Carolina State University have analyzed 50 years’ worth of hit songs to identify key themes that marketing professionals can use to craft advertisements that will resonate with audiences.

“People are exposed to a barrage of advertisements and they often respond by tuning out those advertisements. We wanted to see what we could learn from hit songs to help advertisers break through all that clutter,” says Dr. David Henard, a professor of marketing at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the research. “We also wanted to see if there were specific themes that could help companies engage with consumers in a positive way via social media.”

(Mind you, there was plenty of miserable whining in the 90s too. ^^^)

Resonate with a large and diverse population of consumers

“Our work shows that there is a limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience and resonate with a large and diverse population of consumers,” Henard says. “We’re not saying that every marketing effort should center on one or more of these themes, but the implication is that efforts incorporating these themes will be more successful than efforts that don’t.”

The researchers began by compiling a list of every song that hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” song list between January 1960 and December 2009. The tracks ranged from “El Paso” by Marty Robbins on Jan. 4 and 11 in 1960 to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys in the last five weeks of 2009.

The researchers used computer programs to run textual analysis of the lyrics for all of those songs and analyzed the results to identify key themes.

12 key themes

The researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs. These themes are loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion. But while these themes are common across the 50-year study period, A picture of music making by Sebastiaan ter Burgthe most prominent themes have varied over time. “Rebellion,” a prominent theme in the ’60s and ’70s, did not break the top 10 in the ’80s – and was in the middle of the pack in the ’90s and ’00s.

The themes of “desperation” and “inspirational” leapt to the top of the list in the ’00s for the first time – possibly, Henard notes, due to the cultural effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content,” Henard says. “It reinforces the idea that communications centered on emotional themes will have mass audience appeal. Hit songs reflect what consumers respond to, and that’s information that advertisers can use to craft messages that will capture people’s attention.”

Source: North Carolina State University
Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg

The paper, “All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits,” is forthcoming from the Journal of Advertising Research. The paper was co-authored by Dr. Christian Rossetti, an assistant professor of business management at NC State.

2 Replies to “The Twelve Keys to a Hit Song”

  1. Avatar Rob Deatherage says:

    This is interesting stuff, except for the advertisement brainwashing part. Get out of my HEAD!~ Thankfully underground (independent artists) music cannot be swayed by this money or power. One more reason to turn off the radio, turn on some Skinny Puppy, and say fuck you to main stream!

    Nice article and this website is just amazing too. Thanks!

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