How to Make a Hit Song: Scientists Analyze Underlying Messages in Popular Music

Songs range from sexually explicit to seemingly tame, but there is one underlying purpose that may encompass them all. First suggested by Darwin, one of the most important scientists in the field of evolutionary biology, music may have come into existence as part of the courtship process. In other words, music may have come about to make the artist seem like a better mate – to help them find sexual partners.

This may not be shocking due to the explicit lyrics of today, but how deeply ingrained this pattern is may surprise you. Dawn Hobbs, a professor at State University of New York, and Gordon Gallup, a professor at University of Albany studied this phenomenon. They analyzed the billboard top 100, checking the song lyrics for various categories of sexual content—courtship, sex, pair-bonding (the affinity between two members of a pair, or couple), parenting, fidelity, mate guarding (trying to prevent one’s mate from mating with anyone else), and provisioning (resources or status used to protect a mate).

They found that 92% of songs in the billboard top 100 contained these references, with R&B having the most, followed by pop and country. One may say that this simply a trend in modern music, but Hobbs and Gallup continued on, looking into operas and art songs back to the 1790’s. What they found, and that holds true today: reproductive messages sell.

One would have probably guessed that sex sells, but would you have guessed if a song does not reference sex in some way, it has little to no chance of becoming popular. Not only does sex sell, but as far as we are concerned it is the only thing that does sell. So, when you sit down to create your very own masterpiece, consider that your milkshakes are the only way to bring the listeners to the yard.


Dawn R. Hobbs, Gordon G. Gallup (2011). Songs as a Medium for Embedded Reproductive Messages Evolutionary Psychology, 9 (3), 390-416.

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