In a recent journal article titled Who remembers the Beatles? The collective memory for popular music, researchers have sought to add to our understanding of how long hit songs linger in our memory.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on March 5, 2019

The authors randomly selected a group of #1 Billboard singles spanning the last 76 years (with two from each calendar year) and played a sample of them to the study’s participants.

Those taking part in the study, who were mostly millennials, were asked whether they recognised the song. They were not asked to name the song or artist, but simply whether they recognised it in a more general sense.

Is there a ‘cultural horizon’ that hit songs can disappear behind?

The original hypothesis of the researchers, who are based at the New York University, is that the recognition of any given hit song would decline with age and that a kind of ‘cultural horizon’ exists beyond which even the most popular songs would be eventually be forgotten. What they found, however, is that this is only broadly true and that the decline in recognition levels is not linear but varies greatly.

For relatively recent songs, time was a key factor in recognition; study participants were almost twice as likely to recognise a hit from 2015 as one from 2000.

For songs that had been hits last century, there was a stable plateau of recognition. For earlier hit singles, dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, there was a gradual but more pronounced drop-off in recognition.

The authors go on to suggest that there is a strong self-selected element to which songs remain familiar as people can choose to be exposed to them, for example through deciding to play them on streaming services such as Spotify.

The song most commonly recognised by study participants was actually Grand Funk Railroad’s ‘The Loco-Motion’, which achieved a recognition level of 1.00. The song has remained in popular consciousness despite a relatively low play count. Interestingly, the song was a cover of a 1962 hit by Little Eva, itself a number one hit. The song was also covered by Sylvie Vartan (1962) and Kylie Minogue (1987), topping the charts in France and Australia respectively and suggesting there is something truly universal about the song, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

Other songs bucked the trend by outliving their contemporary hits in the memories of the young survey participants. The Beatles’ 1967 hit ‘Hello Goodbye’ (0.72 recognition level), Percy Sledge’s 1966 standard ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ (0.80) and The Tokens’ 1961 single ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ (0.71), were all as familiar as many 1990s chart-toppers, which had an average 0.42 recognition rate.

Harry James and Bruce Hornsby: forgotten chart toppers?

Somewhat ironically, Harry James with his Orchestra’s ‘I’ve Heard that Song Before’ was apparently not a song any of the study participants had heard before, recording a 0% level of recall.

More surprisingly, Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s ‘The Way It Is’ was also unfamiliar to the millennials, despite at least one prominent pop culture reference to the easy listening chart-topper from 1986.

The study suggests that the question of how memorable or recognisable a hit song will be in the long run is a complicated one indeed. Even introducing the notion of self-selection hits on a chicken and egg conundrum; are these songs played more often because they are inherently memorable? Or have some become familiar because they have been played so often?

Even this in-depth survey seems to only scratch the surface of the elusive question of why some hits fade into obscurity while others seem to only grow in stature over time.

The melody lingers on: other songs more than a decade old which still had a high level of familiarity:

  • Beyonce’s ‘Irreplacable’ (2006) 0.88 recogntion level
  • Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ (2005) 0.84
  • Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ (1999) 0.85
  • Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ (1993) 0.90
  • Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’ (1992) 0.90