God bless pointy-headed scientists for bringing analytics to music.
Dr. Mick Grierson from Goldsmiths, University of London, fed data from fifty of the greatest songs ever recorded into a computer program. The software tore apart each track–an autopsy of sorts–to come up with a list of strengths, weaknesses, commonalities and points of differentiation. Basically, he was looking for a recipe, a cocktail, of elements that go into making up an iconic song.
Like what? Beats per minute. Key. Lyrical content. The variety of timbre (tonalities and sounds) throughout the song. Sonic variance (dynamics, etc.). Chord variety.
He found that 8o% of the songs were in a major key in this order: A, E, C and G. The average tempo was 125 BPM and most tracks had between six and eight chord changes. He measured something called “spectral flux,” which is described as how the power of a note varies from one to the next. At the same time, timbral dissonance–the conflict between tones–was found to be higher than normal, meaning that there was often a jarring effect on the listener. And I find this interesting: certain words came up over and over again: “Generation,” “Queen” and “hallelujah,” for example.
After all the data was crunched, he and his computer concluded that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ticked the most boxes. It, therefore, is the most iconic song ever–or at least from the 50 tracks that he chose to examine.
I should point out that Dr. Grierson’s work was commissioned by Fiat, who was looking for some kind of musical hook to plug the new Fiat 500. Here’s the list of songs ranked by iconic-ness. Anything on this list that surprises you?
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
2. Imagine, John Lennon
3. One, U2
4. Billie Jean, Michael Jackson
5. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
6. Hey Jude, The Beatles
7. Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan
8. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Rolling Stones
9. God Save The Queen, Sex Pistols
10. Sweet Child O’Mine, Guns N’ Roses
11. London Calling, The Clash
12. Waterloo Sunset, The Kinks
13. Hotel California, The Eagles
14. Your Song, Elton John
15. Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin
16. The Twist, Chubby Checker
17. Live Forever, Oasis
18. I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston
19. Life On Mars? David Bowie
20. Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley
21. Over The Rainbow, Judy Garland
22. What’s Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye
23. Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen
24. Be My Baby, The Ronettes
25. Creep, Radiohead
26. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel
27. Respect, Aretha Franklin
28. Family Affair, Sky And The Family Stone
29. Dancing Queen, ABBA
30. Good Vibrations, The Beach Boys
31. Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
32. Yesterday, The Beatles
33. Jonny B Good, Chuck Berry
34. No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley
35. Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley
36. Every Breath You Take, The Police
37. A Day In The Life, The Beatles
38. Stand By Me, Ben E King
39. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, James Brown
40. Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones
41. What’d I Say, Ray Charles
42. Sultans Of Swing, Dire Straits
43. God Only Knows, The Beach Boys
44. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, The Righteous Brothers
45. My Generation, The Who
46. Dancing In The Street, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
47. When Doves Cry, Prince
48. A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
49. River Deep Mountain High, Ike and Tina Turner
50. Best Of My Love, The Emotions
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