Why "TiK ToK" went #1

Why was Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" such a smash hit? This analysis fascinates me as an example of a field of research that attempts to deduce patterns of popularity in artistic work. Like studies that analyze faces that most people find attractive (we like faces that are symmetrical and that tend to be averages of faces across a large population), the film and music industries have tried to reverse engineer the hit and break it down to a reproducible recipe.

I haven't read Futurehit.DNA, the book whose research is applied here to TiK ToK, but some success elements it identifies in the song are quite specific. For example:


There are two crucial points in the song where the music basically drops out and forces the listener to engage. This is an essential point for any new song to prevent it from being passive. You need it to be active in order to engage people to listen multiple times and actively purchase. The first drop out occurs at 31 seconds when the verse ends and creates a half second of silence before the chorus kicks in. This actively accents the chorus and makes sure you are paying attention before it starts. The second point is just after 2 minutes when the bridge after the second chorus drops out most of the instruments and all the rhythm. Typically most listeners start getting bored right at the two minute mark, so having this change up right at this moment is the smartest move the producers could do. There’s also a subtle, yet crucial change in the chord progressions at this point. This is key as this also creates a shift that engages the listener. This draws from chapters 3 and 4.


The song is in D minor, but that chord first comes in at the 7th beat of the 16 bar progression. So when the song ends cold on the first note of that progression, it ends on Bb. This gives the listener a subtle feeling of an unfinished song, even though it ended on the 1st beat, which is typical of most songs. By not resolving the chord, the listener is more apt to hum the song and therefore more likely to need to listen to it again. This is detailed out in Chapter 5.

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called "The Formula" which delved into efforts to crack the formula of hit songs and movies.

Wait for it.

Sorry, I was just trying the Dropout strategy for my writing, inserting a random gap at about 2 minutes in to see if it would keep you interested.

Anyhow, Gladwell profiled a music company, Platinum Blue Music Intelligence (now Music XRay) which used software to analyze songs and predict their hit potential. The more interesting company discussed in the article was Epagogix, a company that claimed to be able to predict the box office potential of any film project given just the script.

It's not clear whether or not these companies can do what they promise with any degree of accuracy. The secrecy around their algorithms makes it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. One could argue that if they did work, artists, studios, and labels might all have an incentive to keep it a secret from the public. No one likes to think they've been duped by some paint-by-numbers artistic work that preys on some Pavlovian wiring in their brain.

On the other hand, if these algorithms really did work, you'd think it would be well worth the cost to employ them and that a higher percentage of songs and movies coming out of the big labels and studios would be commercially successful.