Menus Subscribe Search

Quick Studies

happy

Pharrell Williams' Happy has been No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 for four consecutive weeks. (Photo: YouTube)

Can a Song’s Lyrics Predict Its Commercial Success?

• March 19, 2014 • 2:48 PM

Pharrell Williams' Happy has been No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 for four consecutive weeks. (Photo: YouTube)

New textual analysis of Billboard Hot 100 hits shows that certain themes are more likely to be No. 1.

“I don’t listen to the words.” So goes the refrain of people who are accused of enjoying pop music with vapid lyrics or songs with objectionable content. (“Blurred Lines,” anyone?)

It turns out, though, that lyrics are a significant predictor of a song’s commercial success. A new analysis by researchers at North Carolina State University reveals the top 12 most common themes based on the lyrics of No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular themes are largely emotional in nature and tend to reflect the cultural influences of the time. The most consistently popular theme is “Breakup,” though there are spikes of popularity in each decade:

  • 1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion
  • 1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded
  • 1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion
  • 1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism
  • 2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation

So why does it all matter, beyond a reminder that music can be quite melancholy? The study, slated for the June 2014 issue of Journal of Advertising Research, also shows the use of popular themes during certain decades can predict whether or not a song hits the Billboard Hot 100 at all.

The analysis shows that the presence of the top seven most common themes in a song’s lyrics could predict with a 73.4 percent accuracy whether a song would make the Hot 100 list.

“A lot of advertising research on how music impacts advertising is on tunes and jingles,” says lead author David H. Henard. “What hasn’t been examined is whether the lyrics play a role.”

Neuroscience research has shown that individuals process lyrics and tunes independently while listening to songs, he says, so the researchers chose to look at lyrics independently of tunes.

In an effort to control for music style and genre, which presumably are consistent within an artist’s catalog, Henard and his colleague Christian L. Rossetti focused on the top two artists in each decade from 1950 to 2009. The analysis shows that the presence of the top seven most common themes in a song’s lyrics could predict with a 73.4 percent accuracy whether a song would make the Hot 100 list. (Those themes are loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia.)

Henard said it’s the first time that lyrical themes in popular music have been shown to affect a song’s commercial success.

The study has huge implications for advertisers and marketers, Henard adds: “Music is something people have related to over the decades, so can we put out a message that will resonate with people? Will it go viral and be shared across social networks?”

While the current study doesn’t examine the primary themes of the 2010s, Henard says it’s just a matter of time before somebody conducts the analysis—most likely a company looking to capitalize on thematic engagement with their marketing.

The study has even more obvious implications for the hordes of songwriters who are trying to come up with Rihanna’s next song. Just take a look at 2014’s No. 1 singles—there’s plenty of emotional fodder there to fuel a new pop hit.

The most influential words (not themes) for Hot 100 no. 1 singles per decade.The most influential words (not themes) for Hot 100 No. 1 singles per decade. (Source: Journal of Advertising Research)

Bettina Chang
Associate Digital Editor Bettina Chang previously directed editorial content at HomeStyle and Real Estate Weekly. A Chicago native, she serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams, working to improve education outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students. Follow her on Twitter @bechang8.

More From Bettina Chang

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.