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Popular Hit

March 6, 2006

Beyonce and Britney rise predictably to the top of the pop charts every time they release new singles. But does their success reflect quality or just dumb luck?


What makes a hit song skyrocket? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

[song from Shipwreck Union]

This song by Shipwreck Union is all but unknown, but a few fans and a lot of luck could send it to the top of the charts. It was among 48 unknown songs posted by Columbia University scientists to eight websites. There visitors could listen to songs, download them, and see how many times others do,nloaded them. Sociologist Duncan Watts says they found that different songs became hits on each site, depending on how they did early on.

DUNCAN WATTS (Columbia University):
So you see this sort of rich getting richer phenomenon and that’s kind of what’s driving this unpredictability.

On the other hand, a site without information on how others rated songs didn’t have runaway hits at all, showing that social pressure and luck are key ingredients of fame.

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.