People often complain that pop music is too formulaic. All the songs are about the same stuff and sound essentially the same. Recent research done by a professor at University of Southern California has determined that there are quantifiable qualities of songs that reached high chart position, when compared with songs that failed to climb the charts.
Joseph Nunes, a professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Music, combed through thousands of songs that were ranked by Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. He analyzed what combinations of vocals and instruments were used in the most popular songs in the United States over the last 55 years.
Nunes and his team listened to all 1,029 songs that were ranked number one since the magazine began ranking songs in 1958. They compared those to the 1,451 songs that failed to rank higher than 90 on the chart. Their research found that number 1 songs most often featured two distinct sets of instrumentation:
- Synthesizer, clean guitar and background vocals
- Synthesizer, distorted guitar and background vocals
Songs that didn’t get above 90 on the chart universally did not include background vocals. So if you want your song to be a hit, higher some backup singers. Another interesting finding is how number of instruments can effect success. They found that songs with a surprisingly low or high number of instruments faired well. This is also influenced by when they were released. For example, hit songs during the mid-70s to the 90s featured more instruments, while songs in the 60s and 2000s with fewer instruments did better.
It is important to keep in mind that music is an art, not a science, but it can fun to look at music with a scientific lens. There are a million other factors effecting a song’s success, including the artists fame/reputation, the current events of the time, etc.
In any case, I would higher backup singers for your next recording session.