The Science of ‘Old Town Road’

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying ‘Old Town Road’s’ 19-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100 — the chart’s longest-running number 1 song [source: Billboard]. So, how does a song as polarizing as ‘Old Town Road’ manage such a feat? New research shows that there might just be more science to it than you think.
 

 
Music listeners love typecasting music, and one of the biggest questions in pop-culture over the past few months has been, what style of music is ‘Old Town Road’? Billboard originally placed it in their Hot Country charts, only to move it later due to backlash from Country purists. A study published last month by the University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL), may have just put that conversation to bed — sort of.

The study, derived by PhD student, Timothy Greer, predicts musical genre by analyzing the interplay of music and lyrics throughout a song. Through the use of AI, Greer was able to compare ‘Old Town Road’ with nearly 200,000 musical segments from over 5,000 songs. The software determined that the song does not fall within one particular style, but rather, demonstrates a unique sonic fingerprint combining country, rock, and pop genres [sources: Popular Mechanics; Science Daily]

While this finding is certainly interesting, it does not answer the question as to why a song combining these three styles would become a number 1 hit for over 19 weeks. At SongDivision, we happen to think it has more to do with societal norms than with the music itself.

For one, the abundance of content being consumed today naturally drives demand for material that is more and more unique — Avicii’s chart-topper, ‘Wake Me Up’ is a good example of this trend. As artists continue to seek new ways to stand out, it is reasonable to expect more genre-bending music topping the charts in the years to come.
 

 
Secondly, given the resources at our fingertips, people love sharing their opinions, and nothing brings out that desire better than a good polarizing story. In this day and age, popularity stems not from support, but from mass coverage, positive or negative. Viewed through this lens, it isn’t surprising to see a song like ‘Old Town Road’ topping the charts. Whether or not you like the music is secondary to the spectacle and interest that it generates.

The point is that this seemingly simplistic song connects the dots in a way that listeners absolutely love, or absolutely hate, and yet, for better or for worse, can’t get enough of.

At SongDivision, we live to bring people together using the science of music, and we understand that there’s more to writing a great song than just music and lyrics. Let us help you unite your teams around your purpose using music.

 

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