Music by the Numbers

Media conglomerates have long hedged their bets by consulting demographics experts and marketing gurus. Now, music executives have real science to bolster their sometimes unreliable instincts about what will succeed and what will fail. It's an audio analysis program called Hit Song Science (HSS).

Using a database of Billboard-charting pop hits dating back three decades, researchers at Spanish company Polyphonic Human Media Interface (PHMI) have analyzed approximately 3.5 million successful tunes for "melody, harmony, chord progression, beat, tempo, and pitch," according to an insightful piece by Jo Tatchell in the January 17 Guardian. Aspiring musicians and their agents, and record producers about to sign new acts can email a recording to PHMI and within one day receive a report predicting the song's likelihood of success.

Widely used by big record labels, HSS is an open secret said to be capable of 95% accuracy. The system predicted the success of Norah Jones's massive hit Come Away with Me, despite skepticism among record executives that the disc's unrelenting mellowness would find a market. HSS isn't a method for the creation of robotic sameness, but rather a "polling instrument," in the words of Tom Findlay of Groove Armada.

Artists experimenting with new material traditionally tried to find out what worked by playing before live audiences. Many in the industry believe that technology such as HSS is simply a more accurate measure, but its inherent problem is similar to what medical researchers call "evidence-based medicine," resulting in a backward-looking bias that precludes real innovation.

On the other hand, within Hit Song Science's 5% unpredictability is the potential for new untried forms to emerge. Book publishers, film studios, and the music industry all share this problem—they would like to predict success with great accuracy, but to their continuing dismay, monster hits appear from nowhere. It's refreshing to realize that even with the advent of massive data analysis tools like HSS, the randomness of the marketplace still can't be controlled.