Turquoise background with yellow palm trees on the side. Yellow words say “What Makes a Summer Hit?”

What Makes a Summer Hit?

By Caitlin Dunn
Music Journalist

I have always been curious as to what makes a song a summer song. How can a whole season be comprised into a three-minute song? Like Christmas songs or even the “Happy Birthday” song, great summer songs return to us year after year and never get old; they remind us of summer fun. There are multiple components that make up a summertime classic such as the cheerful lyrics and melody as well as energetic instruments and tempo.

The sun is out, school is out for the summer and so are complex emotion-filled songs. Summer songs have direct lyrics that are not too complex. These songs have a happy, triumphant and an occasional reflective tone. If not a summer-feeling then a spring-feeling is invoked. Many summer hits attach to a memory causing us to connect them to a particular season, especially since they are summer-themed.

Summer hits need an upbeat but mellow tempo similar to their lyrics, lending them a wide variety of summer settings and range from lounging around to dance parties. Not only do these songs float across the country and disperse into the population but to be a hit they must have radio support. Meaning they contain a catchy hook with no swearing throughout the song. The song should appeal to the widest audience, which often helps solicit a sentimental emotion. Like most songs, summer hit lyrics focus on romantic relationships. A majority of the words used in these hits consist of “love,” “baby,” “feel” and “time,” which is later paired up with a rhyming word.

Instruments used in these summer filled songs contain a simple guitar riff with a slow crackling of percussion to give off the effect of walking on a grainy surface. This faded beat creates a mood of a summer night. Any instrument that comes from the British Isles is more than likely used. Even better with a Spanish guitar, like in the Spice Girls’ “Viva Forever,” marimbas, like in the Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” or a Brazilian samba beat. Not only do the instruments effect whether it is a hit but so does the tempo.

Tempo has a powerful impact on the energy of a song. If it is too slow the audience will tune out, but if it’s too fast the audiences get an overwhelming feeling. There is a perfect tempo for a summer hit and it might be linked to our physiology. A study by Frontiers of Computational Neuroscience showed that 60 to 64 bpm (beats per minute) works as a perfect middle ground. Our heart beats at a certain rhythm, and coordinating that to the tempo of a song can have an effect on our mental and emotional process of a song. Whether or not science is involved, finding the right tempo does not just make the song relatable but also adaptable. It needs to have high energy to dance to as well as a calmness to it all. The summer hit needs to be flexible for all types of situations.

First Choice joined with Spotify to study the science behind summer music. The experts examined the 150 most-streamed summer anthems from the past five years to look at the trends and similarities between these summer hits.

Their findings were compiled into a neat formula of Successful Summer Hit = Tempo + (Energy x 1.48) + (Danceability x 1.17) + (Acousticness x 0.17) + (Valence x 1.14).

Since they were able to come up with a formula for a summer hit, this shows that these songs tend to sound more artificial compared to the average song. They might even be slightly happier and energized, so people are more likely to dance to it. The danceability is how well suited the track is for dancing, which includes multiple musical parts like tempo, rhythm, beat and overall regularity.

Experts measured the acousticness, whether it was made by a traditional voice or electronic sound, of a summer track. They found that “tracks with low acousticness include electric guitars, distortion, synthesizers, auto-tuned vocals, and drum machines, whereas songs with orchestral instruments, acoustic guitars, unaltered voice, and natural drum kits will have acousticness values closer to 1.0,” the study said. As for valence, it is positivity of a track, so if the valence is high there it is a happy sounding sound.

The formula was later tested out on the most streamed summer anthems and the formula precisely matches tracks like Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” and Jason Derulo’s “Don’t Wanna Go Home.” So this summer when listening to the radio remember that there is science behind the fame and fortune of a hit.

Featured illustration by Caitlin Dunn.

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