How to Make a Hit Record

What holds the secret to chart-topping musical success? Hint: Don’t go it alone.

March 02, 2016 Julie Riggott

What made Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” a Billboard No. 1 hit in 1983 while Madonna’s 1999 “Nothing Really Matters” floundered at No. 90? Backup vocals may be the secret to success.

USC Marshall School of Business marketing professor Joseph Nunes and colleagues analyzed thousands of songs from Billboard’s Hot 100 to determine the instruments and vocals used in the most popular songs in the United States since 1958.

After sifting through nearly 2,500 songs they found one surprising commonality. “Using background vocals in your song increases your chances of reaching the top of the charts,” Nunes says.

Every hit song featured backup vocals, while bottom-dwelling songs excluded them. The researchers also found two combinations of core instruments and vocals most often present in No. 1 songs: background vocals, synthesizer and clean guitar or background vocals, synthesizer and distorted electric guitar.

Still, music is an art, not a science, and the analysis can’t fully explain a song’s popularity. Sometimes star power from a singer like Rihanna, Nunes says, “may overcome any effect of instrumentation.”