Can science predict a hit song?

Most people remember listening to the official UK top 40 singles chart and watching the countdown on Top of the Pops, but can science work out which songs are more likely to 'make it' in the chart? New research has looked at whether a song can be predicted to be a 'hit'.

The paper, to be presented at an international workshop this week, argues that predicting the popularity of a song may well be feasible by using state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms. The research team, led by Dr Tijl de Bie, is based in the University of Bristol's Intelligent Systems Laboratory in the Faculty of Engineering.

The team looked at the official UK top 40 singles chart over the past 50 years. Their aim was to distinguish the most popular (peak position top five) songs from less popular singles (peak position 30 to 40). A website, ScoreAHit, about the research is available at

The researchers used musical features such as, tempo, time signature, song duration and loudness. They also computed more detailed summaries of the songs such as harmonic simplicity, how simple the chord sequence is, and non-harmonicity, how 'noisy' the song is.

A 'hit potential equation' that scores a song according to its audio features was devised. The equation works by looking at all the UK hits for a certain time and measuring their audio features. From this the researchers had a list of weights, telling then how important each of the 23 features was and allowing them to compute a score for a song.

The team found they could classify a song into a 'hit' or 'not hit' based on its score, with an of 60 per cent as to whether a song will make it to top five, or if it will never reach above position 30 on the UK top 40 singles chart.

Dr Tijl De Bie, Senior Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence, said: "Musical tastes evolve, which means our 'hit potential equation' needs to evolve as well. Indeed, we have found the hit potential of a song depends on the era. This may be due to the varying dominant music style, culture and environment."

The study found some interesting trends, such as:

  • Before the eighties, the danceability of a was not very relevant to its hit potential. From then on, danceable songs were more likely to become a hit. Also the average danceability of all songs on the charts suddenly increased in the late seventies.
  • In the eighties slower musical styles (tempo 70-89 beats per minute), such as ballads, were more likely to become a hit.
  • The prediction accuracy of the researchers' hit potential equation varies over time. It was particularly difficult to predict hits around 1980. The equation performed best in the first half of the nineties and from the year 2000. This suggests that the late seventies and early eighties were particularly creative and innovative periods of pop music.
  • Up until the early nineties, hits were typically harmonically simpler than other songs of the era. On the other hand, from the nineties onward hits more commonly have simpler, binary, rhythms such as 4/4 time.
  • On average all songs on the chart are becoming louder. Additionally, the hits are relatively louder than the songs that dangle at the bottom of the charts, reflected by a strong weight for the loudness feature.
The results of the study differ from previous research, which has so far not been shown to predict hit potential. A possibly important qualitative difference with previous studies is the use of the time-shifting perceptron to account for evolving musical taste.

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Citation: Can science predict a hit song? (2011, December 17) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
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User comments

Dec 17, 2011
The loudness reminds me about the increased volume of radio/tv commercials that they use. (because it works)
(they increase the recording volume to the upper limit of the digital values so it stands out over other recordings)
Starting from 1 September this year there is a volume normalization law for commercials in our country, (so this ends this trick to influence us)

Dec 17, 2011
To save you time googling,a perceptron seems to be an artificial neural network.
Time shifting is the digital technique of storing data for later view...??¬_¬
Need more info

Dec 17, 2011
The state of modern music

By : Isaac

So you_can_polish a turd...

~ Finis

Popular music ( Pop chart tunes, etc ) is sold to the masses like candy these days.

Before MTV, music videos and auto-tuning, real music was something that was inspirational by itself, the only requirement was to listen.

There was no need to know what the musician was wearing, who they were f*cking today, or what kind of car they were going to crash next.

Kids didn't want to grow up to be a rapper or an MC, they had real ideals.

Idk, I could philosophize about it all day

...Jason Becker, FTW.


Dec 17, 2011
Follow the money: record companies push artists onto playlist with money, and the DJ:s play them on the radio and MTV.

That's the only stuff people hear day in day out unless they go out of their way to look for something else, so that's what's ending up on the charts. At the same time, the record labels are rejecting other kinds of music because they think it won't sell, creating a feedback loop where you get only one kind of music.

The second issue is, that a good number of the charts are fake - paid off - like some viewer top ten charts where the viewers are actually the record label marketing department, or buddies of the channel's producer.

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