To reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, a song has to be unique — but it can't be too unique or divergent from the norm, according to a new study.
Business school researchers at Columbia and INSEAD analyzed 26,000 Billboard hits between 1958 and 2016 and found that the highest-charting singles reached a mathematical "sweet spot" between familiar trends and a novel sound.
The study, published in the American Sociological Review,broke down each hit song by attributes like key, tempo, mode, and time signature. It then assigned each song a "typicality" score — a measure of how similar the track was to other songs released around the same time.
The songs that had a "somewhat below average typicality score" tended to do better on the Hot 100 chart, according to the study's co-author, Michael Mauskapf.
"To have the best chance of reaching the very top of the charts, a song needs to stand out from its competition, but not so much as to alienate listeners,” Mauskapf wrote in a release about the team's analysis.
The study cites Adele's music as an example of "perfect typicality," in that she has found massive success with a "little bit of differentiation" from popular-music norms.
"What becomes popular next is likely to be slightly differentiated from the last round of hits, leading to a constant evolution of what is popular," wrote study co-author Noah Askin. "Popularity is a moving target, but the context always remains relevant. This is at least as much art as it is science."