Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Ticks All the Boxes, Named Most Iconic Song Ever

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

More at The Daily Mail.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Ticks All the Boxes, Named Most Iconic Song Ever

  • September 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Leave it to computers. (It’s not even Nirvana’s best song).


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