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Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: Repetitive Lyrics Boost Songs’ Popularity

An analysis of five decades of hit songs finds one likely element that drives some to the top.
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(Photo: Emka74/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Emka74/Shutterstock)

Why one song becomes a hit while another tanks is a question that frustrates and baffles people in the music industry—not to mention the artists themselves. Many a hit has emerged out of nowhere, even as supposed sure things sink as soon as they surface.

Well, new research has identified one obvious but often overlooked element that influences a pop song’s popularity: The repetitiveness of its lyrics.

After analyzing 55 years of pop hits, a study finds that repetition of both the chorus and individual words leads songs to be “adopted more broadly and quickly in the marketplace.” Rhonda may or may not have helped Brian Wilson get his ex-girlfriend out of his heart, but his oft-repeated request helped the Beach Boys song rise to the top of the charts.

“Just like the Greek chorus or its antecedent, the African tribes that practiced chanting in rhythmic fashion, there appears to be a long history of human affinity for the repetition of words in music,” writes researchers Joseph Nunes and Francesca Valsesia of the University of Southern California and Andrea Ordanini of Bocconi University in Milan. Their paper is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Together, these studies suggest that the keys to pop music success are simple music and repetitive lyrics. Somewhere, George and Ira Gershwin are rhythmically rolling in their graves.

The issue, the researchers write, is one of fluency—that is, “the ease with which information is processed.” When grasping and retaining a piece of information feels simple and effortless—as it does when you’re exposed to the same set of words several times in the space of a few minutes—positive emotions are triggered, which in turn influence how we feel about a song.

A very viable theory, but does it translate into real-world results? To find out, Nunes and his colleagues looked at Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart from 1958 to the end of 2012. In their first analysis, they examined all 1,029 songs that reached Number One on the singles chart during those years, as well as the 1,451 songs that made it onto the chart but never rose above 90th place.

Each song was coded for the number of times its chorus was repeated (the range was from one to 16). A separate analysis looked at the amount of repetition of individual words.

The researchers found that, for each additional repetition of the chorus, “a song’s likelihood of making it to Number One, as opposed to staying at the bottom of the Billboard chart, increases by 14.5 percent.” Similarly, when the repetition of words increased, so did the odds of the song making it to the Top Ten.

Additional research found “more repetitive songs reach the pinnacle of their success more rapidly,” climbing the chart faster than their less repetitive counterparts. What’s more, a higher number of chorus repetitions increased the odds a song would enter the chart in the Top 40, an indication that it has caught on with the public quite quickly.

The researchers did find a “ceiling effect,” which suggests taking this trend to an extreme can backfire. Looking at how quickly individual songs rise on the chart, they found that “too much word repetition has a countervailing negative effect.” There’s a reason “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” wasn’t one of the Beatles’ big hits.

Nunes and his colleagues note that songwriters and producers could conceivably use this information to their advantage. “While every artist strives to create a catchy hook,” they write, “they may also consider striving to write a coherent song in which the chorus is repeated frequently, while utilizing a limited vocabulary.”

“If a songwriter can increase lyrical fluency without sacrificing their artistic integrity,” they add, “it would seem like a good idea.”

Of course, many elements go into a hit song; another recent study found that “album sales of a given style (of music) typically increase with decreasing instrumental complexity.”

Together, these studies suggest that the keys to pop music success are simple music and repetitive lyrics. Somewhere, George and Ira Gershwin are rhythmically rolling in their graves.

If all this is depressing, take note that both the movie adaptation of Into the Woods and its soundtrack are doing far better than anyone anticipated, in spite of the complexities of Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics (which complement the nuanced emotions of the work).

Sure, there's a reason Send in the Clowns is his one and only breakout hit. But despite the seductive lure of fluency, some people understand that coming to terms with challenging art is uniquely rewarding.