Music is an integral part of our pop culture. But can data science reveal the most popular music? Join us as we find out!

Measuring popularity

An obvious way to measure music's popularity is through the charts. Billboard has been charting the "Hot 100" songs weekly since 1958. Nowadays, chart rankings are based on a combination of sales (physical and digital), radio play, and online streaming in the United States. Billboard states that the approximate weighting is 35-45% for sales, 30-40% for airplay, and 20-30% for streaming. An annual "year end" chart is also released, ranking that year's songs by calculating a cumulative total of sales, airplay, and streaming. The table below shows the 2017 Year-End chart.

But that's not the only way we can see which songs are popular. 140 million people worldwide are active users of Spotify, with around half of those using the paid Premium service. The Swedish streaming service has a vast catalogue of 20 million songs. Each year, Spotify releases a playlist of the 100 most streamed songs for that year. These are the most streamed songs of 2017.

We can see that there are similarities, but that the lists are far from identical. We can visualize the differences in the rankings using a slope graph.

slope graph of music rankings

Ed Sheeran's Shape of You wins out on both lists! In fact, this pop hit has been streamed over a billion times since its release in January 2017.

After that, though, the lists diverge almost immediately. While there are almost no songs in the top 10 on either list that don't appear anywhere on the other list, the orders are far from identical. Luis Fonsi's Despacito is another winner of these rankings, appearing at number 2 on Billboard and numbers 2 and 3 on Spotify (courtesy of the Daddy Yankee remix). Kendrick Lamar's HUMBLE is also a clear favorite at 3rd on Billboard and 5th on Spotify. After that, it's more contentious. Bad and Boujee by Migos, 4th on the Billboard list, is only at number 36 on Spotify! Even more dramatically, Sam Hunt's Body Like a Back Road is 6th on Billboard but 71st on Spotify! Clearly, the most popular songs depend on who you ask.

The most popular artists

If you're a fan of some of the songs we've been discussing, you might have noticed that there are several artists whose songs appear multiple times on one or both lists. Is there one artist who stands out as the most popular artist?

Answer: kind of, but not by much. This chart displays all the artists who have at least 2 songs on at least 1 list. Ed Sheeran and The Chainsmokers both have 4 songs on the Spotify list, but The Chainsmokers inch ahead by scoring 3 songs on Billboard as opposed to Ed's 2. Perhaps as we would expect, most artists who score at least 2 top 100 hits appear on both lists. The only notable exceptions are Martin Garrix, with 3 songs on Spotify but none on Billboard, and Gucci Mane and Rae Sremmund, both with 2 hits on Billboard but none in the Spotify top 100.

The most popular genres

What about genres? Does one style of music dominate the charts? Fortunately, we can use Spotify's Web API Console to find out. This nifty tool allows you to search for artists and see which genre Spotify classifies their music into. These genres range from the obvious ones like pop, hip hop, and EDM, through to genres you didn't even know existed. (One artist in this dataset - Starley - is classified into the somewhat nebulous genre of "aussietronica". If anybody can enlighten me as to what, exactly, this means, please let me know!)

Genres - Spotify

Genres - Billboard

We can see that the Spotify list is more disposed towards pop music, with almost half the list classified as pop. Conversely, the Billboard list contains more hip hop (35% as opposed to 19%), as well as more modern rock, R&B, and country.

We can see these differences more clearly if we plot the genres next to each other (you can see a larger version here).

If we had to pick a winner, it'd be pop, but both lists have a range of genres represented.

So, can we in fact quantify the most popular music? The answer would have to be - sort of. Ed Sheeran, if you're reading this, the data says that you're the winner! (Also hi, I'm a fan). But really, there's a whole world of music out there. Go forth and explore it!

All these visualizations were made in Displayr; you can make your own for free! You can also check out more of our cool Data Stories.