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Our pop song formula: revealed on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage

The pyramid of pop. Anthony Devlin/PA Archive

Why do people go to Glastonbury? No, it’s not a rhetorical question. Once you take away socialising, camping, sex, drugs, fast food, crystal healing, herbal remedies, face painting and sunburn/mudsliding (all of which can be achieved at a cost of less than £215 elsewhere) we must at least entertain the possibility that they’re attracted by the music. And music, in the Glastonbury sense, means pop songs.

Pop songs (generally) stay in one key, are in 4/4 time, last between three and five minutes, are organised into chunks of four or eight bars, have a repeating chorus played two to four times, include the title sung at least three times, and feature short melodic fragments that repeat a lot to help everyone to remember them. Of course, there’s a lot of great popular music in the world that breaks these rules, but most of the time, when you see a large mass of people in a mosh pit or field having a communal experience, they’re usually experiencing just this – the pop song formula.

The formula, in its current form, arguably arrived with us sometime in the mid to late 60s, although it had been quietly evolving through a quasi-Darwinian process of listener selection for a few hundred years before that. And if Glastonbury 2014 is any indicator, it’s still the dominant song species.

Headlining Friday.

Let’s test this assertion by looking at the most popular songs by Glastonbury’s most popular artists – those headlining on the Pyramid Stage. So we can define Glastonbury’s 2014’s “favourite” songs as the largest number of Spotify streams by the top three headlining artists, appearing on the Pyramid Stage for each of the three nights.

They are – Arcade Fire/Elbow/Lily Allen (Friday), Metallica/Jack White/Robert Plant (Saturday), Kasabian/The Black Keys/Ed Sheeran (Sunday). I’ve amended White and Plant’s top songs to account for their previous respective bands having more plays than their more recent solo work, working on the assumption that these high-profile classics are likely to be a big part of the appeal for fans.

There’s an argument for deleting Sheeran’s Hobbit-formed I See Fire, but as it’s impossible to account for the effect of cross-media selling on a song’s popularity I’ve left it in. So, based on this data set, the top nine songs of Glastonbury 2014 could be said to be – Reflektor, One Day Like This, Not Fair, Enter Sandman, Seven Nation Army, Stairway to Heaven, Fire, Lonely Boy and I See Fire.

Headlining Saturday.

All these songs are in 4/4 time and stay in one key throughout. The shortest is Lonely Boy (3:13) and the longest is Stairway to Heaven (7:58); the median average of the group is 4:23. They all include the title sung more than once with the exception of Seven Nation Army (only once, in verse 1) and Enter Sandman (the title doesn’t appear). Seven of the nine have a repeating chorus featuring the title. They all use 4 bar phrases. Most of them feature a repeating melodic riff of between one and four bars in length.

Does the pop song formula mean that all popular music sounds the same? Clearly not, and there will be plenty of songs performed at the festival this weekend that challenge one or more of these norms. As online streaming overtakes downloads and retail sales, the historical requirement for songs to be radio-friendly may be starting to diminish – leading to some interesting current challenges to traditional song forms, even in the mainstream. But as a musicologist (and, yes, as a fan) I’m interested in the way we love popular music as much for its similarities as its differences.

Headlining Sunday.

We are endlessly entertained by songs that fit within known parameters, and we only need slight variations from the predictable to make something quirky or interesting (indeed, the law demands such variation, the lower threshold of songwriting creativity being defined by an absence of plagiarism). These formulaic characteristics can be found in almost any US/UK corpus of mainstream popular song you’d care to analyse from the past 50 years. A huge number of classics exhibit all of the norms – and yet within those constraints, skilled songwriters and artists can achieve creativity that absorbs and enthrals us. Crowd-pleasing songs simultaneously tread the well-trodden path and the road not taken.

The popular song, historically speaking, has served two main functions – community singing, and community dancing, and you’ll see plenty of both in front of the Pyramid Stage. So if you’re in the crowd, watching the crowd on TV, or even on that stage this weekend, look over the sea of joyful singing faces and dancing bodies, and let the song remain the same.

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