News

December 6, 2007

What Makes a ‘Number One’ Billboard Hit?

Julie Sauer ’08 explores the economic conditions that influence popular music in her honors thesis

Julie Sauer ’08 (Rochester, N.Y.) is double-majoring in government & law and economics & business. She is currently working on her honors thesis “The Influence of Economic and Social conditions on the Internal Structure of Popular Music, 1977-2006” with Mark Crain, Simon Professor of Political Economy and chair of Policy Studies. The following is a first-hand account of Sauer’s experiences with her thesis.

One topic that has always fascinated me is popular music and how it changes over time. When my thesis advisor, Mark Crain, presented research to me that he had previously conducted on this topic, I was instantly curious. His study explored the impact of economic forces on popular music and he found that the economy does in fact drive culture.

For my honors thesis, I am examining the impact of economic, demographic, and social indicators on the structure of popular music. In addition to these factors, my thesis will address various characteristics of an artist and the factor’s affects on the artist becoming a “number one” hit in Billboard magazine’s chart.

Have you ever wondered if more males or females make it to the top of Billboard magazine’s charts? Does the crime rate in the United States affect what becomes popular music? These are two examples of the types of questions in which my thesis will attempt to answer.

I began the research for my thesis by going through each week of Billboard magazine’s number one hits during the time period 1977-2006. There are 1,565 songs in my data set and for each song I have been collecting data on the length, genre, meter, key (major or minor), chord changes, and lyric content of the song. I am using these metrics to define the “structure of a song,” which is the dependent variable in my empirical model.

I will be including economic conditions – such as unemployment, income, poverty, and crime rates – in my thesis to analyze their potential impact on what songs and types of music become popular. Further, I will also be including social indicators, such as drug use, armed military conflicts, immigration rates, college graduation rates, church attendance, the age distribution of the population, and the number of internet users, to examine their impact on the form and structure of popular music. Overall, these indicators all play an important role in society and it will be interesting to find out whether or not they have an impact on popular music.

The research portion of my thesis has also included building a data set of various characteristics for each artist(s) whose song hit number one on the Billboard chart over the past 30 years. These characteristics include, age, gender, ethnicity, and the number of people who were a part of performing the number one hit, whether it be a group, trio, duet, or solo artist. All of these characteristics will be examined in my thesis for their impact on the artist’s chance at having a “number one” hit in Billboard magazine’s rating.

We will be taking into account the number of weeks a certain song held the “number one” rating on the chart. Additionally, we will look at what share of the music market the top four artists of each year held. We will also examine the percentage of each year that was dominated by the top four hit songs.

Overall, my thesis research thus far has included an in-depth analysis of all “number one” Billboard hits from 1977-2006. Additionally, the research on artist characteristics, economic, social, and demographic indicators has all proven to be beneficial in helping to examine changes in popular music. I am currently still collecting data for my thesis and am excited to run the regressions to find out which factors really have the most impact on the song structure of popular music.

I have been meeting once a week with my thesis advisor, Mark Crain. I am extremely grateful to have his guidance during the research and writing of my thesis. After I finish my data collection, I will run regressions to see which factors have the most influence on the structure of popular songs. As we attempt to explain characteristics of these 1,565 songs that reached number one in the Billboard magazine ratings from 1977 through 2006, it will be fascinating to see trends and changes in music over time.

 

Sauer currently serves as president of Student Government and has served as treasurer and student organizations chair. She is a member of the varsity swim team, where she currently holds two school records. Sauer is a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma and has served as an orientation leader for two years. She traveled to Italy in 2006 on a summer interim trip and has held internships with M&T Bank and the United States Federal District Court, in the western district of New York.

 

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