What makes a successful hit song?

On Salon, Thomas Bartlett mentions the Music Lab experiment at Columbia:
A research team led by Columbia University sociology professor Duncan Watts is conducting an experiment called Music Lab … an experiment that involves a lot of free MP3 downloads. After signing in and answering a few questions, you'll find yourself on a page listing 48 songs. If you click on a song, you'll hear a streaming version of it, along with a prompt to rate how much you like it. After answering, you're given the option to download it (free and legal) or to move on. I've listened to a handful of the songs, all of them by bands I've never heard of, and so far haven't found them particularly good. How the experiment works, and what the Columbia researchers are actually measuring, isn't explained anywhere on the Web page. (Link, may be premium)
The description of the experiment made me think of Hit Song Science and how the firm that owns it (Polyphonic HMI) breaks down successful songs using computers to examine their underlying structure... I wonder if the experiment is along similar lines?

Another possible approach is discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: music research firms such as Pick the Hits and the creatively-named Music Research, which measure how a sample audience responds to a song and can predict success with relative accuracy. I'm curious as to which method - surveys vs computer analysis - produce "better" results. The Hit Song Science people claim that it can pick out leftfield candidates, such as Norah Jones.

Of course, what this all presumes is that popular songs are intrinsically good, rather than made popular by publicity...


Daryl said…
I've been the proud recipient of loads of free CDs from record labels trying to promote their songs, so I understand that there's some manipulation going on, but I'm actually intrigued by the idea that a song might have a certain "signature" that makes it likely to be a hit.
Anonymous said…
I think I can make two arguments for the "signature" theory.

1) I listen to almost no mainstream radio or television music, preferring to catch indie bands and upcoming names at local venues not heavily promoted. Some of it is awesome, some ok and some stinks like yesterday's fish. I usually have never heard of them before (or, frequently, since) but find some stuff really moving/intriguing. When that happens I generally tend to like the majority of what's on their album. So lack of manipulation doesn't seem to steer me either direction.

2)Take any mega-star, can't get through ten seconds of your day without hearing about them and listen to their very best CD. Chances are there is a song you don't like or can't stand but most of it is pretty hot. So you've been steered hard-core towards an artist for good reason, but there are still some really crappy songs.

Both arguments point to the "signature" theory. I think that the industry's promotion of certain bands feels like steering, but in reality, they know what they're doing and the bands are pretty good to begin with. In other words, they have the "signature" already, the industry just promotes it.

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