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Top 12 themes in Billboard #1 hit songs and successful ad campaigns

Researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs
Researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs
Photo credit: Martin Fisch (marfis75) on Flickr (cc)

Musicians develop musical styles at specific times and within a specific cultural context much like the field of advertising.

In a new study, titled "All You Need is Love? Communication Insights from Pop Music’s Number-One Hits," published in the Journal of Advertising Research, researchers identified 12 key themes, and related terms, that came up most often in the hit songs.

The research, led by Professor David Henard from North Carolina State University, involved computer analysis of the lyrics to nearly 1000 songs from Billboard magazine's "Hot 100" song list between January 1960 and December 2009. The researchers used computer programs to run textual analysis of the lyrics for all of those songs and analyzed the results to identify key themes.

The influential words found in the analysis of Billboard #1 songs by decade were:

In the 1960s: Love, quantity, baby, female name, time, man, good, girl, heart, night

In the 1970s: Love, quantity, girl good, baby, man, night, way, time, eye

In the 1980s: Love, quantity, baby, time, night, heart, man, eye, way, life

In the 1990s: Quantity, baby, love, way, man, time, girl, dance, life, night

In the 2000s: Quantity, baby, girl, way, man, time, good, nigga, love, boy

The 12 key themes found in the study were:

Loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion.

"These themes overwhelmingly reflect emotional content, rather than rational content," Henard says. "It reinforces the idea that communications centered on emotional themes will have mass audience appeal."

Below is a list with examples of songs and commercials that represent these key themes as well as their keywords and associated descriptors.

Loss Photo Credit: DeeAshley on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Sadness, heartache, losing, love, loneliness, unrealized romance

Keywords: Heart, love, apart, lonely, leaving, feeling

A songs like "One Sweet Day" by singer-songwriter Mariah Carey and R&B group Boyz II Men and commercials like, "Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux" express the theme of loss.

Personal loss was a dominant theme in the 1980s and 1990s—decades that were generally viewed as times of personal abundance in the United States.

Desire Photo credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Longing, wanting, anticipation, lust, coveting.

Keywords: Move, tonight, baby, body, trying, dance.

A song like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," by The Beatles, recorded in October 1963 and the television commercial for the Escada fragrance, “Desire Me," with Olivia Wilde express the theme of desire.

Aspiration Photo credit: John Haslam (foxypar4) on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Dreams, other-worldly, longing, anticipation, hope

Keywords: Dream, heaven, tonight, moon, move, world

A song like “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” by Elton John and Samsung’s recent “The Way We’re Wired” commercial, overtly emphasizes the aspiration theme.

According to the research, the aspiration theme was quite popular in the 1980s and declined in the 1990s with a slight increase in the 2000s.

Break-up Photo credit: Hartwig HKD (h.koppdelaney) on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Out of love, loss, separation, goodbye, person-specific

Keywords: Waiting, time, leaving, tear, goodbye, lonely

A hit song like Toni Braxton’s, “Un-Break My Heart” and the Yellowbook ad, “Break Up” with Alexandra Daddario express the break-up theme.

The “breakup” theme appears to be used regularly and with less fluctuation across decades than the other themes. This could either indicate that, outside of the 1960s and 1970s “breakup” is a relatively under-represented lyrical theme or that it is a theme that is constantly represented among commercially successful lyrics and not as subject to temporal or environmental fluctuations as are the other primary themes.

Pain Photo credit: OakleyOriginals on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Pain, mixed emotions, in the moment, sadness, change, goodbye

Keywords: Bad, good, goodbye, kiss, moment, woman

A song like "Pain" by Three Days Grace and the television commercial for the Dove's, "Patches" campaign are examples of the pain theme.

The "pain" theme was almost non-existent before the 1980s and declined in the 1990s. It is presently the most popular theme, along with "desperation" in the 2000s.

Inspiration Photo credit: SBA73 on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Optimism, energetic, vibrancy, dancing, connectedness

Keywords: Life, everything, music, good, world, dancing

The Billboard hit from 1977, “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone, and the famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop - I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial from 1971 and the Apple, iPad Air television ad, “Your Verse” express the inspirational theme.

The inspiration was hardly used before 2000 with a brief increase in the 1990s. It is currently at break-out levels this year.

Nostaglia Photo credit: James Vaughan (x-ray delta one) on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Romantic, oneness, togetherness, dreamy, idealistic

Keywords: Feeling, morning, woman, heart, time, heaven

A song like Jim Croce’s, “Time in a Bottle” and the 2007 Cadillac, “Break Through” ad campaign which featured the music of Led Zeppelin express the nostalgia theme.

The “nostalgia” theme stands distinct from the other primary themes in the 1970s, and yet it decreases in usage until the 2000s.

Rebellion Photo credit: Connor Tarter on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Rebellious, counter culture, Rock ’n’ Roll, music

Keywords: Favorite, Sunday, playing, city, rock, radio

A song like "Blue Suede Shoes" by Elvis and the 1966 Dodge Charger, “The Dodge Rebellion” commercial express the rebellion theme.

The research showed there was a substantial fluctuation in the use of the "rebellion theme" across the 50 years, which indicates that its use was closely tied to environmental cues.

Jadedness Photo credit: Sachin Sandhu on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Reflective, jaded, cynicism, trapped, contemplative

Keywords: State, Favorite, mirror, Sunday, heavy, jet

"Hip to Be Square" a song by Huey Lewis and the News from 1986 and the infamous Keep America Beautiful ad campaign, “The Crying Indian” express the jaded theme.

The jaded theme had a major boost in the early 1980s and briefly in the 1990s.

Desperation Photo credit: SuperFantastic on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Helpless, trapped, desperate, cornered, coveting

Keywords: Corner, throw, line, guess, promise, stupid

The song “Cry Me a River” by Justin Timberlake and the Nissan LEAF “Polar Bear” commercial express the desperation theme.

The “Desperation” theme generally is underrepresented until the 2000s, where it dominates. This is reminiscent of the patterns exhibited by the primary themes of “Pain” and “Desire” and could track closely to the post-9/11 social environment.

Escapism Photo credit: B Rosen on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Fantasy, escape, ecstasy, love as a drug, sex,

Keywords: Deal, ecstasy, flying, inside, question, grooving

The hit song from 1975 by Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and the Amazon Kindle commercial, “Fly Me Away” are examples of the escapism theme.

The escapism theme appeared in the 1990s with the desperation theme following in the 2000s. It could be that those periods of time where individuals are searching for escape and fantasy are followed by periods where they feel trapped and helpless.

Confusion Photo credit: Ian Sane on Flickr (cc)


Associated Descriptors: Distant, Memories, Pointless, Secrets

Keywords: Memory, Suitcase, Circle, View, Secret, Magic

The hit song by Nelly, “Dilemma ft. Kelly Rowland" and the T-Mobile commercial for JUMP! “Missed Texts” express the confusion theme.

Both loss and confusion were the dominant themes in the 1980s according to the study.

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