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