What Makes a Hit Song?

In: Culture History Innovative

23 Jun 2011

Rutgers students Shaun Ellis and Thomas Engelhardt tried to discover the secrets sauce behind a “hit” song by analyzing 4,200+ songs that made it to the top ten of Billboard’s Hot-100 chart. Using the echonest api, they took a look at tempo, duration, time signature, key, and abstracts like “energy” and “danceability”.  The main results are laid out here.

The fun part is, they made the whole data set available in Tableau for us to play with (download Tableau reader (free) and the dataset). Using the filters, you can answer bizarre questions such as how many hits in 1979 were on the charts more than 20 weeks that were recorded in the key of C (answer: 7). Or you can look at the data over time to discover all kinds of interesting long-term trends:

A scatter of all of the songs illustrates that the average tempo is 120 BPM.


Finally proven mathematically, songs of the 1980s consistently had the highest “danceability” (suck it, 90s!):


Hits are getting longer in length:


You can document the much maligned increase in loudness after the introduction of the CD, though it is also part of a longer-term trend.


If you have the full version of Tableau, you can design your own charts (but you probably don’t, because Tableau is too damn expensive).


Update: There are a few additional Tableau visualizations of this data available (that don’t require you to install anything) that are also quite interesting.


10 Responses to What Makes a Hit Song?


Dave M.

June 23rd, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I dunno… Seems there’s a little bit of autocorrelation going on in the charts on danceability and song length.


Dave Misanidiot

June 24th, 2011 at 12:42 am

Dave M. you don’t know what you’re talking about. Do everyone a favor and shut the fuck up. Fuckin fag



June 24th, 2011 at 1:53 am

i second Dave Misanidiot



June 24th, 2011 at 3:37 am

It’s no big deal that the 1980s provided more “danceability”. The music died after the 80s.
Today, the record labels finds, promotes, writes songs for and generally speaking owns the groups/artists.
This fact might (also) explain why nobody wants to pay for music anymore.
Where are the new Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Genesis etc.etc. ?


Alex Kerin

June 24th, 2011 at 11:22 am

I don’t think song lengths are increasing any more – they increased quickly in the 70s and then peaked in the late 80s, possibly decreasing slightly since then. Median duration may provide a smoother chart.



June 27th, 2011 at 8:21 am

Although record labels are overly involved in the final product current music, people don’t want to PAY for music because everyone born post 1980 is a card carrying member of the digital_scratch that_”let me download everything for Free” revolution.



June 27th, 2011 at 9:01 am

Isn’t the real question: What hit song was 0 bpm?



July 8th, 2011 at 8:51 am

if all those 4200+ songs were top ten hits, their dataset had no true negatives – so instead of determining “What Makes a Hit Song?”, they “just” determined what all these hits have in common.
e.g., There is no evidence that 120 bmp is what makes song a hit – what if average bpm of all non-hit songs is also 120 bpm ?


Billy Bob

August 25th, 2011 at 8:49 pm

You know why people don’t want to pay for music anymore. Because people never stopped caring about singles. Yet, they took away singles and only sold CDs. Nobody want’s an album with 1 good song on it and that is exactly what the 90s were filled with. Thanks to the Internet, people could obtain singles again and so they did. Because the record labels were being (and still are) such dicks and not trying to find ways to use technology, people simply gave them the finger. iTunes is a huge hit and money maker because it gave people the choice to only buy what they wanted to hear. Unfortunately, the record labels already sucked the life out of music and musicians for more than a decade. Now the only way to do anything is to live off their tit because they have legislated creativity away.



November 20th, 2011 at 8:59 pm

The first song I checked had the wrong key and several by the same artist were all over the place tempo wise – ballads being posited at 119bpm and mid-up tempos at like 70…. What’s the point if the data’s not even accurate.

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