When “Funkytown” comes on at a wedding, you can’t help but dance, right? What about Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” or “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer?
If your answer to any of those is no, you have defied computer science. (Also, I don’t want you at my party.) Those songs are among the most “danceable” number-one hits in the history of pop, according to new research from Columbia Business School and French business school INSEAD, using data from Billboard and audio-tech company Echonest.
Developed by students at the MIT Media Lab and owned by Spotify, Echonest uses digital processing technology to identify attributes of songs, such as valence, instrumentation, and key signature. The company created a proprietary algorithm to determine the “danceability” of a song based on its tempo and beat regularity. The calculation emphasizes the ability to dance throughout the whole song, so a bridge that even briefly changes the mood is highly penalized.
Researchers at Columbia and INSEAD then combined Echonest features with US Billboard rankings going back to 1958. Although they were able to calculate danceability for more than 90% of Billboard-ranked songs, Taylor Swift’s album 1989 was not available from Echonest at the time. Thus we may never know whether “Bad Blood” is more danceable than 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” though my own personal investigation suggests it’s a dead heat.
The Most Danceable US Billboard Number Ones since 1958
1 Give It To Me Timbaland 2007
2 SexyBack Justin Timberlake 2006
3 Hot In Herre Nelly 2002
4 Ice Ice Baby Vanilla Ice 1990
5 Pop Muzik M 1979
6 Another One Bites The Dust Queen 1980
7 Funkytown Lipps, Inc. 1980
8 Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down Puff Daddy 1997
9 Baby Got Back Sir Mix-A-Lot 1992
10 Billie Jean Michael Jackson 1983
11 Bad Girls Donna Summer 1979
12 I’ll Be Missing You Puff Daddy & Faith Evans 1997
13 Hollaback Girl Gwen Stefani 2005
14 Fancy Iggy Azalea 2014
15 Then Came You Dionne Warwick 1974
16 Boogie Fever Sylvers 1976
17 Low Flo Rida 2008
18 Hypnotize Notorious B.I.G. 1997
19 It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me Billy Joel 1980
20 In Da Club 50 Cent 2003
The purpose of the research—published in the American Sociological Review and beautifully explained here by data scientist Colin Morris—was not to rank the most danceable mega-hits; it was to identify song features that could be predictive of mega-hits. Researchers found that top-ranked songs tended to have more difference from past hits than lower-ranked songs, defying the trope that popular songs are just copies of other popular songs.
Still, the optimal pop song should be only slightly off the beaten bath. Take Snoop Dogg’s number-one hit “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” It’s quite similar to much else on the charts, except for its distinguishing slow tempo.
This article first appeared here.