Think you can name the all-time virtuoso when it comes to song lyrics? A researcher named Varun Jewalikar dug deep to compile some cool stats.
Here’s what he did. Jewalikar took a list of the 99 best-selling musical artists of all time (across all genres), and cross-matched that against a database of their lyrics. For each artist, he analyzed the 100 songs of theirs that contained the most words total. (A few of the artists on the list have recorded fewer than 100 songs, so he used all of theirs).
Then Jewalikar looked at vocabulary size – not the overall number of words, but the number of unique words used by each artist across their musical portfolio.
The average for all the artists was 2,667 different words. The top four all come from hip hop, which has a tradition of lyrically dense songs.
- Eminen, with a song vocabulary of 8,818 words.
- Jay Z: 6,899.
- 2Pac: 6,596.
- Kanye West: 5,069.
- Bob Dylan: 4,883. It shouldn’t be surprising that last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is so, well, literate.
Keeping it simple
Complexity doesn’t always equal popularity. You don’t need to sing the equivalent of a Scrabble board. Consider that The Beatles came in at #76 in Jewalikar’s analysis, with a song vocabulary of 1,872 words. That’s about 20% of Eminem’s total. Yet the group seemed to make the most of those words.
Maybe there’s a lesson for communicators. Simplicity can penetrate. That’s true in song lyrics, and in professional and everyday discourse. You don’t always need to be verbose to be heard.
Another study of 37,000 hit songs, from 1890 to now, shows that song titles tend to use a relatively narrow vocabulary. Some of the most commonly used words: baby, girl, boy, woman, man, heart, eyes, blue, dream, night and, most frequently, love. Every one of them simple.
Fifty years ago this summer, The Beatles release one of their biggest songs, one with just 398 words. Ten separate words accounted for 323 of them, or 81% of the total:
- love (repeated 84 times, or just over one-fifth of the lyrics);
- you (65 times);
- all (52);
- is (51);
- need (51);
- can (10);
- nothing (7);
- can’t (4);
- easy (3); and
- it’s (3).
An unfussy song. And a classic. Sometimes in lyrics, as the title of the song says (and in life too), “All You Need is Love”.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
August 9, 2017