If I were asked to name some of the most iconic songs of all time, I'd probably throw out titles like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," or "Hey Jude." Turns out science has a different answer. Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London put "Smells Like Teen Spirit," by Nirvana at the top of a list of 50 iconic tunes. It's followed by John Lennon’s “Imagine," U2’s “One,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Computer scientist Dr. Mick Grierson looked at tracks found in seven "Best of" lists from music publications like Rolling Stone and ran them through a program that compared them by key, BPM, chord variety, lyrical content, timbral variety, and sonic variance. Grierson and his team used these findings to calculate what made the "perfect" song.
“We found the most significant thing these songs have in common is that most of them use sound in a very varied, dynamic way when compared to other records,” Grierson told the Daily Mail. “This makes the sound of the record exciting, holding the [listeners'] attention. By the same token, the sounds these songs use and the way they are combined is highly unique in each case.”
Nirvana's breakout track, featured on their second studio album Nevermind, boasts many of the features that the researchers identified as common in popular songs.
Grierson found that the average tempo of the most popular songs was 125BPM, with 40 percent being around 120BPM. Chord changes were relatively infrequent—the songs that fared the best boasted an average of six to eight. Of course, there are some glaring exceptions to these "rules": Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" has twice as many beats as the average song.
Ultimately, the researchers found that no amount of number-crunching can accurately predict whether or not a song will become a classic. "My conclusion is that if you want a formula for creating great music, there is one: you just have to make something that sounds great," Grierson says.
You can see the full list of tracks over at the Daily Mail.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Victor Blackman, Express/Getty Images
Who are America’s all-time favorite musicians and bands? When it comes to the best-selling artists of all time, The Beatles still rule—yes, even a half-century after their breakup. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), these are the 50 best-selling artists of all time.
Albums sold: 183 million
Albums sold: 148 million
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Albums sold: 146.5 million
Albums sold: 120 million
Albums sold: 111.5 million
Albums sold: 84.5 million
Albums sold: 84 million
LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images
Albums sold: 78.5 million
Albums sold: 75 million
Albums sold: 72 million
Albums sold: 69 million
Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images
Albums sold: 68.5 million
The Rolling Stones
Albums sold: 66.5 million
Albums sold: 66.5 million
Albums sold: 66.5 million
Albums sold: 64.5 million
Ethan Miller, Getty Images
Albums sold: 64 million
Albums sold: 63 million
Albums sold: 58.5 million
Albums sold: 56.5 million
Albums sold: 54.5 million
Jason Kempin, Getty Images
Albums sold: 52 million
Albums sold: 50 million
Albums sold: 49.5 million
Albums sold: 48 million
Noam Galai, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some facts about the stellar track.
1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”
2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.
The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.
3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.
In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.
4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.
"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."
5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."
The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.
6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.
Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.
7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.
When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.
8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.
SpaceX via Getty Images
In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.