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Why music goes viral: the science theories that explain pop hits Computers may soon write our music from scratch. One algorithm can predict with 60% accuracy whether a song will be a Top 5 hit.

We have all heard the line: “Pop music is so formulaic.” But what does that mean? What is that formula? What makes a pop hit a hit? And how can we write one so we can get the royalties from that next chart topper?

It turns out that a lot of researchers have been asking the same question.

The Hit Potential Equation

In 2011, a team of researchers at the University of Bristol came up with a Hit Potential Equation, for the purpose of predicting the next UK hit. The Equation is based on musical features, such as tempo, beat-variation, loudness, time signature, “danceability,” and simplicity. The formula looks like this:

The “Hit Potential Equation.”

The f’s (f1, f2…f23) in the equation each represent a different musical feature; the w’s (w1, w2…w23) represent the features’ weight of importance. The importance of the musical features was determined by a computer algorithm, which analyzed the top forty hits from the UK over fifty years. Based on a given pop song’s score, the researchers can predict with sixty percent accuracy whether that song will be a Top-5 hit or never rise above the Number 30 spot on the UK’s Top 40 Singles Chart.

The Hit Potential Equation is one of the most accurate formulas to date, in large part because the researchers have factored in the effects of time on pop music trends. The change in music styles over time can be attributed to the culture and environments of that era, and how people were listening to music (on their mp3 players, in clubs, etc.).

The researchers found that the top songs from 2000 onward are easier to predict than songs from the 1980s or 1970s, suggesting that today’s pop hits are not as creative and innovative as they once were. For more info on pop music trends through the ages, check out Score a Hit.

The visual approach

Across the pond, Rutgers University graduates Shaun Elis and Tom Engelhardt have taken a more visual approach to understanding pop hits. With the help of custom visualization software, Elis and Engelhardt are able to evaluate top pop songs based on patterns.

Like the researchers at University of Bristol, Engelhardt and Elis evaluate pop hits by features, such as tempo, song length, key, and record label. It turns out that, as of 2010, the typical pop hit song was 114.2 beats per minute, three minutes and fifty seconds long, in the key of C major, and moderately danceable.

When Paul Lemere, director of musical intelligence company The Echo Nest, put top hits like Taylor Swift’s “Fearless,” Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” and Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” into his visualization software, he found that they had similar triangular patterns, like this:

Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus > Royalties.

The other theories

The list of ways that researchers, mathematicians, and laymen have used to analyze pop songs is endless. Researchers at the University of Southern California speculate that key ingredients to a top pop hit is to have backup vocals and unusual instrumentation, meaning less or more than the standard three to five-instrument ensemble.

Or maybe creating a hit pop song is more about inserting the right amount of repetition to create a sense of familiarity and trigger the listeners’ pleasure centers. Or maybe we should all follow Pharrell’s lead, and start our songs with the four-beat, DOOP DOOP DOOP DOOP intro, which is guaranteed to make a hit.

  • The Mere-exposure effect suggests that people are more likely to like music that they have heard before, even if they don’t consciously remember hearing it.
  • Social influence theory proposes that people’s musical tastes are shaped by the opinions and preferences of their peers and social groups. This is also related to evolutionary theory of music, which proposes that people are drawn to music that reflects or enhances evolutionary fitness, such as music that promotes social bonding, sexual attraction, or emotional expression.
  • Some suggest that people are more likely to enjoy music that elicits a moderate level of arousal (i.e. excitement or energy) and has a positive emotional valence (i.e. a positive mood or emotion).
  • Musical expectancy suggests that people enjoy music that fulfills and exceeds their expectations based on their previous exposure to musical styles, genres, and patterns, while also providing some degree of novelty or surprise.
  • Cognitive fluency theory proposes that people are more likely to enjoy music that is easy to process and mentally fluent, meaning that it is easy to recognize, understand, and remember.

Whatever the secret, most can agree on one thing: simplicity sells. Not only is this true in the pop world, but across all genres. Researchers at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria studied over 500,000 albums across 15 genres and 347 subgenres, and found that as a genre increases in popularity, it becomes more generic.

Case in point, take a look at this top pop-country mashup video by musician Gregory Todd.

What cannot be squeezed into a formula are all those other factors that make a hit a hit, like marketing budget, prior popularity of the artist or band, social factors, and lyrics.


So, what is the formula to a top hit pop song? It likely has something to do with a dancey beat, a catchy chorus, and a simple message related to reproduction. It seems we are a long way from discovering the perfect pop star formula, that one mathematical equation that will truly encapsulate why that Rihanna song will be the next billion-dollar hit.

What we do know is that even if pop music continues to get simpler, humans are complex. And we will never have a formula for that.

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