What Do the 50 Most Iconic Songs in History Have in Common?

50_Most_Iconic_Songs

You know what it’s like when you hear a song that co

mpletely breaks through the moment and catches your attention.

Even if you hear it subtly in the background, you are drawn in and mesmerized. You get lost in the music and without realizing it, you start to hum or sing along.

We all have moments where music connects with us immediately and powerfully. We may think those moments are based on personal opinions and perspectives, but it turns out the songs that reach us actually have a lot in common.

A new study, conducted by computer scientist and musician Dr. Mick Grierson from Goldsmiths, University of London, discovered that the “best” songs are more similar than we think.

The Study

To identify the traits of the most iconic songs of our time, Dr. Grierson compiled a list of “best songs” from seven music critics and authorities such as VH-1 and Rolling Stone.

He then used analytical software to analyze and assess the songs to see what themes in the music were similar. The test measured chord variety, key, number of beats per minutes, lyrical content, timbral variety, and sonic variance.

From the results, he identify the most common themes in the music and then produced a list of the most iconic 50 songs of all time.

The Results: The 50 Most Iconic Songs of All Time

50. Best Of My Love, The Emotions
49. River Deep Mountain High, Ike and Tina Turner
48. A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
47. When Doves Cry, Prince
46. Dancing In The Street, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
45. My Generation, The Who
44. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, The Righteous Brothers
43. God Only Knows, The Beach Boys
42. Sultans Of Swing, Dire Straits
41. What’d I Say, Ray Charles
40. Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones
39. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, James Brown
38. Stand By Me, Ben E King
37. A Day In The Life, The Beatles
36. Every Breath You Take, The Police
35. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley
34. No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley
33. Jonny B Good, Chuck Berry
32. Yesterday, The Beatles
31. Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
30. Good Vibrations, The Beach Boys
29. Dancing Queen, ABBA
28. Family Affair, Sky And The Family Stone
27. Respect, Aretha Franklin
26. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel
25. Creep, Radiohead
24. Be My Baby, The Ronettes
23. Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
22. What’s Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye
21. Over The Rainbow, Judy Garland
20. Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley
19. Life On Mars? David Bowie
18. I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston
17. Live Forever, Oasis
16. The Twist, Chubby Checker
15. Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin
14. Your Song, Elton John
13. Hotel California, The Eagles
12. Waterloo Sunset, The Kinks
11. London Calling, The Clash
10. Sweet Child O’Mine, Guns N’ Roses
9. God Save The Queen, Sex Pistols
8. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Rolling Stones
7. Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan
6. Hey Jude, The Beatles
5. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
4. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson
3. One, U2
2. Imagine, John Lennon
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana

(You can listen to all of the songs on this YouTube playlist.)

At a first glance, the songs may not seem to have much in common. But the study found the opposite to be true.

The Similarities

Many of the songs has striking similarities. They often:

  • have an average tempo of 125 beats per minute (40% of the songs were 120 BPM)

  • have 500 beats throughout the entire song

  • use only 6-8 chord changes

  • were recorded in a major key (mostly A, E, C or G)

  • have high spectral flux (the power of a note strongly varied from one to the next)

Many of the songs also used a repetition of words in the lyrics. The most common words used were ‘Baby’, ‘Feel’, ‘Love’ and ‘Nah’.

So, Is There a Science to Creating an Iconic Song?

It’s interesting to see the similarities of some of the most famous and well loved songs in history.

But the findings are in no way a strict formula for creating an iconic song.

There are multiple exceptions throughout the list. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven has twice the number of beats than the average of the other songs on the list. And Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag by James Brown has only three chord changes while other songs had an average of 6-8.

Also, the most important similarity between the songs on the list was actually a difference.

“We found the most significant thing these songs have in common is that most of them use sound in a very varied, dynamic way when compared to other records,” said Dr. Grierson.

They may have similarities, but the songs are constructed in very different ways.

“... the sounds these songs use and the way they are combined is highly unique in each case,” explained Dr. Grierson.

So, it turns out there are somewhat magical elements to an iconic song -- but no formula.

What Can We Learn from The Study?

While the study shares some interesting insight about what features make up an iconic song -- one of the most interesting angles of the story may be regarding the root of the study.

Dr. Grierson was hired by Fiat to perform this research.

Fiat, recognizing the importance of music matched with their marketing, hired Dr. Grierson to identify the most iconic song of all time so they can use it in their new advertising campaign.

Music matters. It impacts our emotions and leaves a lasting impression on us. Fiat understands that and sought to find a song that would strongly resonate with their audience and form a connection.  And as a result of the study, the number one most iconic song from the list, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, will be covered by singer songwriter Ella Eyre and used in an upcoming Fiat TV commercial.


Are you interesting in learning more about how music connects with an audience, changes attitudes, and even consumer behaviors when inside of a store? Read our blog post about why identifying a musical sound for a business or brand is more important than you think.
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