What makes a hit song?

A study compiled data from half a million songs released over the last 30 years and found some of the winning characteristics of a successful track: Happy, danceable songs sung by women tend to be more popular nowadays.

Singles that make it into the charts today are "happier," more danceable and more likely to be sung by women than less successful ones, a study into 30 years of musical evolution revealed Wednesday.

But the study also revealed that while people clearly prefer happy music, there is less and less of it

"More and more unhappy songs are being released each year," the research team from the University of California Irvine reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Overall, they determined that "happiness" and "brightness" in music has declined, "while 'sadness' increased in the last 30 years or so. Hit tunes often defy this trend, and tend to be "much" happier than unsuccessful ones.

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Pharrell Williams' "Happy" was an international hit

The new study, which analyzed the data of 500,000 songs released in Britain between 1985 and 2015, actually focused on the acoustic characteristics of popular tracks and not the songs' lyrics. The timbre and tonality of a title, danceability and mood as well as the gender of the singer were some of the factors taken into consideration, along with more complex cluster classifications.

Songs were considered "successful" if they made it into Top 100 charts, which less than four percent of new releases do every year.

A previous study covering 1980-2007 and analyzing music lyrics determined that songs have become more self-centered, with increased use of the words "me" and "I," fewer social words such as "we," and more anti-social ones such as "hate" and "kill."

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Women at the top of the charts    

The research also found that as "happy" music declined, so did the popularity of songs sung by men. "In the recent years, successful songs are more often sung by females," said the study.

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"This is particularly interesting given a large debate about the role of women in the music industry, especially the issues of gender inequality, stereotypes and the sexualization of female singers."

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Jazz and classical remain niche

Also rising in popularity are songs described as "relaxed" and "danceable," possibly linked to a rise in electronic music and a decline in rock and heavy metal.

The study noted that classical and jazz songs were "unlikely" to be successful. Dance and pop music remain the most popular genres.

The team gave examples of happy songs from 1985, including "Live is Life" by Opus, "Freedom" by Wham!, and Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." Examples of songs with "a low happiness index" included Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" and "Whispers" by Passenger, both from 2014.

A math formula for hits?

Can the research help songwriters score a hit?

"In a way it could, if they look at the trends that we found and try to follow them," study co-author and mathematician Natalia Komarova told press agency AFP.

"But of course a large component of success is still something that even mathematics cannot quantify."



The winning entry for the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, this is the song that led to ABBA's worldwide fame. Written specifically for the contest, it was selected as the best song from the competition's history for its 50th anniversary in 2005. Referencing Napoleon's surrender at the Battle of Waterloo, it tells the story of a woman who "surrenders" to the man she loves.



Released in 1975, this was ABBA's first major worldwide hit after "Waterloo." The Who's Pete Townshend called it "one of the best pop songs ever written." John Frusciante, Peter Cetera, Chris deBurgh as well as Portishead are among the musicians who later covered the catchy hit.


'Dancing Queen'

It is ABBA's biggest hit ever. "Dancing Queen" was the second track on their fourth album "Arrival" from 1976. The Swedish band picked up the disco sound that was trending in the US and gave it a Europop twist. "We knew immediately it was going to be massive," member Agnetha Faltskog said. It became a classic that still brings joy to any dance floor.


'Money Money Money'

ABBA's attitude and outrageous costumes had something uniquely naive that rejoices fans of kitsch to this day. These kimonos were famously worn in the video for "Money, Money, Money." By the time this single from the album "Arrival" was released in 1976 after "Dancing Queen," ABBA was definitely very rich. That didn't matter, as everyone agreed, it "must be funny, in the rich man's world."



Released in 1976, this single became one of the best-selling tracks of all time. The song tells the story of two veteran freedom fighters from the war between Texas and Mexico meeting again: "There's no regret, If I had to do the same again, I would, my friend, Fernando..." Bjorn Ulvaeus once said he liked to write "little stories" with his songs.


'Knowing Me, Knowing You'

"Breaking up is never easy..." This 1977 song is one their first to deal with the break-up of a relationship, years before it would become their own reality. ABBA was composed of two married couples: Agnetha Faltskog was with Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad with Benny Andersson. Both of their marriages collapsed at the height of their popularity.


'The Winner Takes It All'

Reflecting the end of a romance, this 1980 track has an aura of sadness that appeared as difficulties in the members' relationships arose. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog announced they were divorcing in 1979, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Benny Andersson in 1981. However, the band kept touring together. Ulvaeus, who wrote the lyrics, has often claimed the song was not based on his own experience.


'Mamma Mia'

This 1975 chart-topper became the title of a musical based on ABBA's songs and musical romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep. "Mamma mia" is Italian which literally translates as "My mommy," but is used to express surprise or excitement.



The title of this 1979 song also borrows from another language, as "chiquitita" is a Spanish term of endearment for a woman meaning "little one." In contrast to ABBA's disco hits, this track opens with a lullaby feel; its chorus is powerful ear candy, "Chiquitita, you and I know..." The video shows the band members singing with a huge snowman.



This time with a title from French, "Voulez-Vous," means "do you want" and is a disco track that appeared on the 1979 album of the same name as well as on many compilation albums. ABBA never officially announced that it had dissolved, but the band stopped being active as a group in 1982. Now they've announced they would be releasing their first new material in 35 years.

eg/ct (AFP, dpa)


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