Want to write an “iconic” song? A computer may have figured out how. And that same computer found the MOST iconic song…ever!

There are fewer things more human that being able to write (and appreciate) music that has a deep emotional effect. Yes, it’s possible to deconstruct various elements of songwriting and to employ the finer points of music theory to achieve that, but you also need that special indescribable human element to make it work. Or do you?

According to a post at Hypebot, a researcher at the University of London has figured out the building blocks of an iconic song. Not only that, but Dr. Mick Grierson sought to find the most iconic song out there. Keep in mind that he wasn’t looking for the best or the most moving song; the key word here is iconic.

Okay, so what does that mean? To Dr. Mick, an iconic song has to be well-known and distinctive, standing out amongst all others thanks to its inherent sonic attributes.

Dr. Mick compiled a list of fifty of the best-known songs from various music magazines–i.e. songs with some degree of, er, iconic-ism. Those songs were then filtered through some computer analysis. Here’s what he found.

  • 80% were written in a major key, predominantly A, E, C, and G,
  • Average tempo was 125 BPM
  • The perfect length was exactly four minutes.
  • And the average number of chords used per song was between six and eight.

Next was determine “spectral flux,” which is “how the power of a note varies from one to the next.” And then there was the matter of “tonic dissonance,” which measured non-harmonic tones outside standard pitches used in the notes.

The computer then had to choose a famous song that was yet different from everything else in terms of key, tempo, length, number of chord changes, variations in timbre, and a lot of sonic fuzziness.

So what did the computer choose as the most iconic song of all time–at least from this selection of 50 songs? This one.

Naturally, there’s a fight. To see how other songs on this list shaped against Dr. Mick’s computer, go here. Meanwhile, here’s his list of iconic songs ranked in order by the computer.

  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,” Sly 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 Goode,” 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

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.

Alan Cross has 38542 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “Want to write an “iconic” song? A computer may have figured out how. And that same computer found the MOST iconic song…ever!

  • gotta admit it… that’s a damn fine list of songs….

  • Dr Grierson: “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.


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