Science declares “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the “most iconic song ever.”

It’s long been acknowledged that “Smells Like Spirit” is one of the most powerful songs in the history of rock. Now a data scientist has declared it to be “the most iconic song of all time.” Not just among rock songs but all songs.

Commissioned by car marker Fiat to find a song to market the newest Fiat 500, Dr. Mick Grierson did a deep-dive into all the songs featured on a series of “all-time best” lists culled from Rolling Stone, Q, The NME, and other publications. He then used special analytical software to deconstruct about the best-placing songs into their constituent parts: key, beats per minute, chord variety, lyrics, timbral variety, and sonic variance.

When the results came back, “Teen Spirit” was found to have ticked the most boxes. It was followed by “Imagine” by John Lennon, U2’s “One,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” from Queen.

What else did we learn?

  • Most hits run at about 120-125 BPM and don’t bother with too many chords (six to eight)
  • The songs use a “high level of tonal variation” but stick to similar keys.
  • About 80% of the 50 songs on this final list were in a major key.
  • About 80% were in the keys of A, E, C, or G.
  • The most commonly used lyrics? “Baby,” “Feel,” “Love,” and “Nah.”
  • These words were also common: “Generation,” “hallelujah,” “every breath” and “queen.”

Dr. Grierson was upfront about a few things. “Ultimately there is no ‘formula’ for this, other than to make your song sound as different, diverse and exciting as possible. Even by applying scientific process, what is considered iconic is ultimately up to the individual. My conclusion is that if you want a formula for creating great music, there is one: you just have to make something that sounds great.”

Here’s the full list:

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

Discuss. More at The Daily Mail.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ 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.

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