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

July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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