David Henard, NC State University – What Makes a Hit Song?

David Henard

David Henard

What do: loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, nostalgia, rebellion, jaded, desperation, escapism and confusion have in common?

According to a North Carolina State University researcher, these concepts are thematic in a large majority of hit songs.

David Henard, Poole Board of Advisors Professor of Business Management & Professor of Marketing at North Carolina State University, is studying popular music to find commonalities.

David H. Henard, Ph.D. is Marketing Area Coordinator and past Director of International Programs for the Poole College of Management. He also served as the Director of Graduate Programs – Global Innovation Management. Before entering academics, Professor Henard worked several years for the Oscar Mayer and Kraft Foods USA divisions of Philip Morris Companies where he held numerous R&D, sales, and marketing positions. He is the author of Stand Out!, a book focused on helping undergraduate students improve their odds of employment.

Henard’s research interests focus on three key areas: innovation, reputation, and communication. His most recent research projects investigate aspects of corporate communications and their ability to persuade consumers in a variety of situations.

The Marketing Science Institute, Procter & Gamble Corp., and NC State University have funded his research.

His work is published in journals such as the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Product Innovation Management, the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the Journal of Retailing, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the Journal of Advertising Research, Research-Technology Management, and Public Relations Quarterly.

He is the recipient of several department, college, and university level awards for teaching excellence and is a member of the North Carolina State University Academy of

Outstanding Teachers and was awarded the Andrew Heiskell Honorable Mention award for Best International Practices by the Institute of International Education.

David Henard – What Makes a Hit Song?

The transformation of marketing communications over the past 50 years is something that is both fascinating and frustrating for marketing professionals. In the 1950s and 60s, marketing and advertising communication was essentially a one-way broadcast. Over time, and with the advent of technology, that one-way broadcast morphed into a two-way communication with consumers. With the explosion of social media, we now experience multi-way conversations. This means that marketers must “join the conversation” if we are to be effective.

Our goal in this research was to look to pop music’s #1 hits between 1960-2009 to see if any lyrical communication themes consistently appeared in top songs across these 50 years. Since songs reach #1 because they have the highest numbers of airplay, downloads, and purchases, the thinking was that these songs might act as leading barometers of consumer sentiment. We, in fact, consistently found 12 themes that were largely emotional versus cognitive in nature and appeared across all five decades. One interesting result is that the relative usage of these themes varied quite a bit across decades and appears to closely map with the contemporary social environment.

 The themes identified in this project resonate with a diverse population of people and extend well beyond the field of music. They are universal in the sense that most of us have experienced them at some point and can relate to the message presented. They transcend geography and time and are replete across classical literature and art. They speak directly to our core humanity. They are communication themes with broad applicability, have stood the test of time, and can help advertisers and marketing professionals better communicate with audiences.

Read More: All You Need is Love? Communication Insights From Pop Music’s Number‑One Hits