Researchers from North Carolina State University analysed 50 years' worth of hit songs – every No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 list between 1960 and 2009 – running a computerised textual analysis on the lyrics to identify key themes.
They came up with a total of 12: loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.
While these themes were common across whole period, some featured more prominently than others at certain times. 'Rebellion', for example, had emerged as notable theme during the 1960s and '70s, but dropped towards the bottom of the list in the 1980s.
In more recent times, the themes of 'desperation' and 'inspiration' had leapt to the top of the list, a development the study speculated could be linked to the cultural effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.
"Our work shows that there is a limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience and resonate with a large and diverse population of consumers," said Dr. David Henard, a professor of marketing at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the research which will be appearing in the next issue of the Journal of Advertising Research (Vol 54, No 2), due out in June.
He added that there was no suggestion that every marketing effort should centre on one or more of the themes the study had identified, "but the implication is that efforts incorporating these themes will be more successful than efforts that don't".
Henard further noted that the themes mostly concerned emotional rather than rational content. "Hit songs reflect what consumers respond to, and that's information that advertisers can use to craft messages that will capture people's attention," he said.
Data sourced from NCSU; additional content by Warc staff