Analyzing the Data Behind the Most Popular Tracks
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Drake recently dropped the “Toosie Slide” — a song seemingly made for TikTok with the chorus comprising of lyrics such as, “It go right foot up, left foot, slide; left foot up, right foot, slide” and an accompanying dance that was seeded out online before the song was released. This led me to think about the anatomy of a viral TikTok song. Are there any patterns to the most popular songs that can be identified? Why do certain songs on TikTok get popular? After analyzing 250 of some of the most popular TikTok songs, I can say…well, it’s complicated. There is no clear cut formula, but there do seem to be important elements that consistently appear in some of the most popular songs on the platform.
You can check out the Google Sheet containing all 250 songs HERE.
Definitions & Exclusions
First, let’s start off with a boring list of definitions and exclusions from the data:
Threshold: I only looked at songs with at least 10,000 videos made using the audio.
Genre: I did not note genres when analyzing the songs, as I think most of music today spans so many genres that it would make for much messier data.
Spotify classifies songs using various metrics. By doing so, Spotify’s recommendation system better understands how to personalize music to one’s taste and group songs together for a playlist. These metrics are the elements that I used to organize the TikTok songs analyzed.
The below definitions are from Spotify for Developer’s website.
Mode: Mode indicates the modality (major or minor) of a track, the type of scale from which its melodic content is derived. Major is represented by 1 and minor is 0.
BPM/Tempo: The overall estimated tempo of a track in beats per minute (BPM). In musical terminology, tempo is the speed or pace of a given piece and derives directly from the average beat duration.
Energy: Energy is a measure from 0.0 to 1.0 and represents a perceptual measure of intensity and activity. Typically, energetic tracks feel fast, loud, and noisy. For example, death metal has high energy, while a Bach prelude scores low on the scale. Perceptual features contributing to this attribute include dynamic range, perceived loudness, timbre, onset rate, and general entropy.
Danceability: Danceability describes how suitable a track is for dancing based on a combination of musical elements including tempo, rhythm stability, beat strength, and overall regularity. A value of 0.0 is least danceable and 1.0 is most danceable.
Acousticness: A confidence measure from 0.0 to 1.0 of whether the track is acoustic. 1.0 represents high confidence the track is acoustic.
Liveness: Detects the presence of an audience in the recording. Higher liveness values represent an increased probability that the track was performed live. A value above 0.8 provides strong likelihood that the track is live
Valence: A measure from 0.0 to 1.0 describing the musical positiveness conveyed by a track. Tracks with high valence sound more positive (e.g. happy, cheerful, euphoric), while tracks with low valence sound more negative (e.g. sad, depressed, angry).
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s move onto analyzing the data…
We’ll start the analysis with the averages for each metric. Below is a chart I created to give a birds-eye view of the data. Generally, popular TikTok songs seem to be energetic with a high BPM and danceability score.
Energy and danceability tend to follow a similar path as BPM increases. This makes sense — a higher tempo would presumably lead to a more “danceable” track and danceability appears to be an important element to the top songs on TikTok.
Major or Minor?
Next, let’s look at the Mode of the songs. As shown in the pie chart below, 64% of tracks are in a Major key, while 36% are Minor. Surprisingly, songs in a Major key did not correlate positively with Valence — the 160 songs in a Major key only scored an average Valence of 50.
How About Key?
When it comes to examining the key of each song, no key specifically stands out. C# took up 46/250 slots (18%), with C# Major comprising 36/46 and C# Minor making up 10/46. I turned all Minor keys, into their relative Major to see if that made any difference and C# Major still reigned supreme but with no substantial difference — accounting for 50 of the 250 slots.
What About the other Elements?
- 198/250 of the songs have a BPM over 100 (Note: there could be some discrepancies here, as a song with a BPM of 190 could be misinterpreted and actually have a BPM of 95 (190 divided by 2).
2. Danceability and Energy
- As displayed below, 237/250 (95%) tracks have a Danceability score of over 50 and 65/250 (74%) scored over 50 on Energy. So, both danceability and energy seem to play important roles.
3. Liveness and Acousticness
- On the other hand, only 11/250 (4%) and 34/250 (14%) of tracks scored over 50 on Liveness and Acousticness, respectively. So, both liveness and acousticness do not seem to play significant roles in the most popular TikTok songs.
- And finally we come to Valence — a mixed bag of sorts. 105/250 (42%) songs have a Valence score of under 50. It truly is almost split exactly evenly on scores over and under 50 — both the mean and median of all songs’ Valence is 53, while the mode is 51. A high or low Valence level does not appear to play an essential role.
Lyrics, The “TikTok Moment”, and More
Of course, there are a number of more qualitative elements that factor into creating a popular TikTok song, such as lyrics, “drops” or what I like to call the “Tiktok Moment,” and marketing tactics.
TikTok videos that are lyric-based tend to have a dance or action that mimic the words in the song.
For example, IllWayno and Holla FyeSixWun’s track “Eyes. Lips. Face.” (1.7M videos), has users apply makeup to their eyes, lips, and face as the lyrics to the song are sung. There’s also a “mwah” lyric where users blow a kiss. Here’s a couple examples:
Yo Mama on TikTok
Yo Mama(@jessicaalba) has created a short video on TikTok with music eyes. lips. face. (feat. Holla FyeSixWun)…
James Charles on TikTok
James Charles(@jamescharles) has created a short video on TikTok with music eyes. lips. face. (feat. Holla FyeSixWun)…
Another example is of course Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” where the lyrics provided a framework to dress up as cowboys/cowgirls and dance away. Lil Nas X told Rolling Stone that he purposely “put some potentially funny lines in there.”
Since the start of writing this article, as mentioned in the into, Drake’s “Lil Toosie” has become a TikTok hit with lyrics that literally tell people what to do — “right foot up, left foot, slide”. Drake has another song “Nonstop” that has also gone viral on TikTok with the lyric “I just flipped the switch” — and yes, you guessed it, the videos contain two users who literally flip a light switch and when the lights are turned back on, their clothes are swapped with the other person in the video.
Creating a “TikTok Moment”
The “ TikTok Moment” is what I call some sort of drop in a song where there’s a build and subsequent sudden change or addition to the energy of the track. These moments enable TikTokers to create a swift and unexpected change in their video, usually something humourous or impressive. Subsequently, with something unexpected occurring in the video, these videos tend to perform quite well on the platform, giving the track more visibility.
For example, take Y2K and bbno$’s “Lalala” (2.3M videos), which starts with a talking intro and then abruptly switches into the song. This is a great way to facilitate some sort of “moment” in a video. See two examples below:
TRI FINN 👀🔥 on TikTok
TRI FINN 👀🔥(@trifinn) has created a short video on TikTok with music Lalala. Ohh you won't believe what happened with…
corey on TikTok
corey(@threedotcorey) has created a short video on TikTok with music Lalala. Part 3...🤭 I know y'all felt that when I…
Another example is Reyn Hartley’s “Snitch” (19.4M videos), which has this eerie intro and then slams into a heavy 808s — once again, providing TikTokers a great opportunity to create an unexpected change in their videos. This song also has an accompanying dance, leveraging it’s lyrics — “click click click,” where three people get on their tippy-toes on each “click.”
See two examples below, the first one showing off the dance:
Michael Le on TikTok
Michael Le(@justmaiko) has created a short video on TikTok with music Snitch. oh we smooth smooth😛 @ondreazlopez_…
Payton Moormeier🌷 on TikTok
Payton Moormeier🌷(@payton) has created a short video on TikTok with music Snitch. Just gonna let you know this song is…
Another example of the “TikTok Moment” is the 0:48 point of Tones and I’s hit song “Dance Monkey” when the pumping bass and kick enter the song, in direct contrast to the bright piano that came before it. Here’s Will Smith killing it, as per usual:
Will Smith on TikTok
Will Smith(@willsmith) has created a short video on TikTok with music Dance Monkey. Don't duet this. 🎨: Auden Lincoln…
Sounds That Translate Into Actions
Having other elements that translate well into dances can also helps songs gain notoriety on the platform. Recently a clap has become popular in playing a key role in dances, as it provides an easy way for TikTokers to clap with the song while performing their dance
An example of this is K Camp’s “Lottery,” which has 32M videos created using the audio. The song starts off with its rumbling bass, complimented by a powerful clap. The clap plays an essential role in the dance, as users clap on beat (while doing some other moves). Here’s an example:
charli d'amelio on TikTok
charli d'amelio(@charlidamelio) has created a short video on TikTok with music Lottery. @danijones @gemmah_
Another example is Wiz Khalifa ft. Ty Dolla $ign’s “Something New,” which has 2.5M videos. This dance has everyone in the video (it’s a multi-person dance) clap on beat with each clap in the music and then subsequently move off screen to let the next person in the video do their thing. Here’s an example:
lebronnyjames on TikTok
lebronnyjames(@bronny) has created a short video on TikTok with music Something New feat. Ty Dolla $ign. @bryce23james
As another example of a sound, Roddy Rich’s popular track, “The Box” has a few very distinguishable squeaks in the intro. This encouraged TikTokers to play with the sound in various ways, from cleaning, to opening doors and more…
Jay Will on TikTok
Jay Will(@jaywill4real) has created a short video on TikTok with music The Box. This how Roddy Ricch made The Box 😂😂…
KingBach on TikTok
KingBach(@kingbach) has created a short video on TikTok with music The Box. Gettin it 🔥🔥 @montanatucker…
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention that marketing plays an integral role in creating a popular TikTok song. Artist teams can leverage influencers to start dance challenges, work with the TikTok music team to get the song featured on the homepage, have the artist try to ignite the challenge on their own, and more.
Here’s an article I wrote on “How To Develop a TikTok Marketing Strategy.”
It’s a Probability Game
While there may not be a perfect formula, including the elements mentioned in this article — danceability, lyrics that direct an action, a “TikTok moment” type drop, to name just a few — can help increase one’s probability of going viral on the platform. For example, an artist may have a song that has a 30% change of going viral on TikTok, based on its characteristics. Perhaps the artist can add in certain action-based lyrics or a dance section that then increases the chances to 70% and makes the potential ROI of an influencer campaign that much greater. I hope this analysis can help artists think strategically (if desired) and increase that probability. However, sometimes, in fact perhaps many times, going viral is just luck.
As Jason Joven from music data analytics company, Chartmetric, told Rolling Stone,
“The interesting thing with TikTok is [that] it’s not always front-line stuff [that performs well on the app]. Catalog is pretty much toe-to-toe with new music when it comes to what people attach to.”
This means, as Rolling Stone concluded, “it’s not easy for labels and artists to know what will work on TikTok — and when.” Trends change, tastes differ, platforms evolve— what’s popular today may not be a couple months from now. This dataset will be irrelevant quickly so as much as a calculated strategy may be useful, I recommend experimentation and action over extensive deliberating.
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