Have a look at the list of top 5 most streamed songs in the history of Spotify along with the SOUND FREQS analysis explaining what made each one so popular. Before we get started, keep this in mind as you read our analysis: The majority of people listen to music to escape, to be validated, and to feel good. You will note that every single one of these songs check one or more off those boxes with listeners.
1 The Weeknd – Blinding Lights | 3.335 billion streams | 86 BPM | F Dorian
This is a play on the 80’s hit “Take on Me” by A-Ha. It has a similar beat, similar upper register pads (and energy), similar vocal register, and similar held melody notes in the chorus. It’s as if the songwriters traced a blueprint of Take on Me and then tweaked it to make a different song. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be surprised because I once took a songwriting course by Ryan Tedder (One Republic), and he said, to my surprise, that is a very common way to write hit songs these days. The uptempo beat, simple drums, high energy pads, and very singable, rich, and smooth vocals in the chorus is why this song went viral. Also a shoutout to the key of F Dorian that gives the song a psychedelic era dissonance, also used by Santana in “Oye Como Va’ and Jimi Hendrix in “Purple Haze.”
The lyrics have super high appeal factor because (as is the case with Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You that held the top spot for a while until Blinding knocked it off recently), they speak to something most people are very familiar with: being lonely and apart from the person you love and unable to sleep (or even think straight) until you are with them again. Most people dream of having someone miss them and love them like this. People “feel” this song because it is familiar to their hearts.
2. Ed Sheeran – Shape of You | 3.333 billion streams | 96 BPM | C# Minor
There are several key reasons this went viral. Of course there is Sheeran’s mass popularity but that alone doesn’t account for 3.3B streams. Let’s start with the syncopated, tuned drum motif that forms the rhythm of the song and plays against Sheeran’s downbeat-hitting, rat-a-tat-tat vocals. The combo of the offbeat drums and the onbeat vocals is funky and catchy. It pulls you in and makes you want to stick around to see where it is leads. It plays non-stop for 50 seconds before the first chorus.
The lyrics are also catchy in that they capture insanely popular sentiments like “the club isn’t the best place to meet people so me and my friends go to the bar.” Then there is the “jukebox” line that smacks so hard of Miley Cyrus familiar “That’s when the DJ dropped my favorite tune And a Britney song was on…” that I half expected Cyrus to start singing. The rhythm and melody of that part are even similar to Party in the USA. But all of this pales into comparison to the tag line: I’m in love with your body… you were in my room and now my bed sheets smell like you..” line. Body image esteem is one of the most popular social topics, and Sheeran capitalizes on it, exactly like John Legend did (All of Me), and John Mayer did (Your Body is a Wonderland) before him. Direct mass appeal to women. Sheeran’s voice is average, but his marketing skills are second to none. Respect!
3 Tones And I – Dance Monkey | 2.726 billion streams | 98 BPM | F# Minor
This song also starts with a very similar rhythm vibe as Sheeran’s except the piano is playing downbeats and the singer is singing more upbeats (where it’s the opposite with Sheeran’s song). But when the chorus comes the singer and piano trade rhythmical places. The main thing is, there is great rhythmical contrast between the singer and the piano part, just as there is in Sheeran’s song. It’s funky and catchy. The chorus is also catchy and highly singable with the “dance for me” refrain.
Underpinning all these things are three X factors that we think made the song go viral: the singer’s unique and biting tonality and styling, dancing monkeys (visual, cute, and funny), and the conceptual contrast between her broken heart and desire to make someone else (the person who presumably broke her heart) dance like a monkey as she had been made to dance. I think the phrase “dance like a monkey” refers to being used. The idea of making the other person dance hints of payback just enough to gain the empathy and approval of listeners who have also been used.
4 Lewis Capaldi – Someone You Loved | 2.596 billion streams | C# maj | 110 BPM
Just like Sheeran’s Shape of You and Dance Monkey, this song starts with a very basic chord progression by tuned percussion (in this case a soft piano). The piano plays simple 8th notes while the vocalist songs contrasting syncopated notes, just as with Sheeran’s song. Just like Dance Monkey, this is another song about getting your heart broken. The tag is “I was getting used to being someone you loved.” This feeling is very well known to most people who have had their hearts broken. It is amplified by the fact that the singer sings as though he is crying and the verses build in sorrow and angst up to and through the chorus (mimicking how heart break starts slow and builds in intensity before it begins to taper off–ie the emotional wave).
This song is sort of a cross between Legend and Sheeran and no doubt familiar to mainstream listeners. People love the familiar. As I said in the outset of this article, people listen to music to escape. Well, they often fall in love for the same reason, and Capaldi validates that when he says “I guess I kinda like the way you helped me escape” to his love lost. Once again, people feel that because they know it in their own hearts. This is how songs become people’s “jams” and they fall in love with the artists who sing them. “He gets me” they say. But we are all built the same way, as 2.5B streams for a slightly above average singer proves. Capaldi, like Sheeran, knows what moves people, especially women.
5 Post Malone – rockstar (feat. 21 Savage) | 2.575 billion streams | F minor | 80/160 BPM
This song starts off with super sad sounding synth and pads that could serve as a soundtrack for a tragic scene in a soap opera immediately followed by the sung-rapped refrain “I been *&*&*&*$$$ &&^%$ and poppin’ pills feeling’ like a rock star.” He then goes on to rap-sing about his friends and their violent exploits and the parties he attends. You keep waiting for there to be a contrasting message like “this isn’t what I thought it was gonna be…” or “but my life feels empty…” but it never comes. It just goes on bantering about the rock star life.
The thing is, though most people who stream this record don’t live the life that Malone speaks of so they can’t really identify, however the sing still works because many of his fans fantasize about living that life and thus live vicariously through Malone, visualizing and imagining what it would be like. I once read the way to a listener’s heart is to appeal to their fantasies (more escapism). Perhaps Malone read the same article. The other reason the song works is because his brags are set against tragic music. This contrast takes the arrogance out of his lyrics and makes it almost sound like he is lamenting his rockstar life rather than bragging about it. So the listener feels the thrill of it through the lyrics and the agony of it through the music and chords.
A few side notes: most of these songs are in F or C and they hover between 90 and 110 BPM. The other thing is, with the exception of Shape of You, all of them have a sad twist to them. It is said art mimics life. I do believe these songs respond, “Yep.”
Please let me know if this analysis was useful and if you’d like me to analyze any songs in particular. Hope this was useful.
Image compliments of Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/girl-headphones-listen-listening-791686/