The Science Behind The Top 40 Hit

23 Jan

For my first guest article for The Cultivated Mind I decided to write on a subject and story most have never heard about. The simple science behind what makes music pleasing to our ears and what that consists of. I am writing this article listening and evaluating Kanye West’s new album for the first time. It has been a recent hit with much acclaim. How does Kanye know which buttons to press and what notes to play to tap into what excites us when we turn on our stereo or iTunes? 

The first basic principle is called Equal temperament, a system in which every note in a scale has an identical frequency space between it and the next note. “Notes” in a scale or song are actually made of frequencies which are simply measurements of sounds waves (measured in hertz).  So how did scientists and musicians first learn how much space went between each note? Someone stepped up and told them how it was supposed to be. In 1581, Vincenzo Galilei wrote a treatise in twelve-tone equal temperament and was one of the first advocates proposing to adopt this style of musical thinking. He also wrote several sets of dance pieces demonstrating this new concept. An example of his early work is in the youtube below and was written in 1584 for the Lute which was a popular instrument of the day

Also, I couldn’t fail to mention that not only was Vincenzo a forward thinking, smart, all around cool dude, he was a father. A father to Galileo Galilei, who was a father himself to modern astronomy, modern physics, and modern science and champion of such silly concepts like the Sun is at the center of the universe. What a family. 

Now that the concept of tuning was formally accepted in the 15th century many more music theorists came to new conclusions on what new scales could be formed from equal temperament tuning. Some common ones were settled on and the most popular was the chromatic scale, specifically the Pythagorean chromatic scale in western culture. You may notice that when you hear music from the middle east it sounds distinctly different. The reason is that music there is based on a completely different temperament tuning system and the resulting scales dont sound the same as ones in western culture. Below is a modern chromatic scale starting on C and what it sounds like here( 

Our modern chromatic scale is made of half steps between each note. The space between each note is called an interval. This is how we derive the modern key system. Finally! If you have stuck with me this long you may have at least heard of a “key”. Which means what the starting note is and how many sharps or flats you have. It’s a term that can have many different meanings but which most performance musicians use to let all members know what notes are allowed and which are off limits. 

The scales used in western music are mathematically arranged in 5ths (an interval, or space of 5) in what is known as the circle of fifths and show the relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. This order determines how many sharps and flats are in a scale.

Next time you are listening to a song, listen for the relationships between each note in a melody and think about guys like Vincenzo that challenged you to listen this way. I’m off to record some more of a new track and then to a rehearsal to practice what I preach….. 
-Nick B.
Nickolas Barnes is a Nashville, TN musician and web developer. You can learn more about him and his constantly developing projects at

One Response to “The Science Behind The Top 40 Hit”

  1. Zac Sullivan, M.A. January 25, 2011 at 2:08 am #

    Wow – cool post, Nick!

    ~ Z ~

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