Summer Jams: An Acoustic Analysis

summer_jams

(An earlier version of this post appeared here.)

The “summer jam” has been with us for thousands of years. The first documented example, “Sumer Is Icumen In,” dropped in 1260 A.D., probably long before burger first sizzled on grill.

Only one thing creates this annual rite of passage, and that’s whether people collectively get together behind the song, until it seems to waft out of every car stereo, barbecue, and window. Maybe it’s because more of us are outside on warm days, or because we share similar feelings about the summer — whatever the reason, we tend to flock to one or more jams each year as the song(s) of the summer. These are the ones that define each summer as we’re living it, and later as we look back.

To find out more about what makes a summer jam — and to have some fun with data — we tapped Spotify’s acoustic analysis technology from The Echo Nest to identify the most danceable, fastest, most energetic summer jams and more, starting with a list of the top U.S. summer hits going all the way back to 1962, and streaming data from more recent years, as reported by WNYC Soundcheck.

We have many ways of understanding music that involve people, but this one does not. Instead, it uses a computer to listen to a song, quite literally. That’s how we were able to identify the following summer jam standouts and trends:

Longest

Prince, his royal purpleness, takes the award for the lengthiest summer jam, with “When Doves Cry,” clocking in at nearly six minutes in the summer of ‘84.

Shortest

The shortest summer jam is The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” in 1964. Brian Wilson and the fellas hit the road after only two minutes and 14 seconds.

Best Dance Jam

It should come as no surprise that the easiest song to dance to is the syncopated, get-on-the-dancefloor groove of 2002 banger “Hot In Herre” by Nelly.

Highest Energy Level

All of these summer jams exhibit very high energy levels, according to our analysis — it’s what people want in the summer. The Jackson 5’s hit “The Love You Save,” from 1970, registered the highest energy level of all the summer jams we tested.

Most Acoustic

This is a measure of how many acoustic instruments were likely involved in each song. The most acoustic was Little Eva’s 1962 smash hit “The Locomotion,” with its prominent saxophones, harmony-rich vocals, acoustic bass, piano, and live percussion.

Most Electronic

The least acoustic song was the artificially-created 1991 hit ”Unbelievable” by EMF, on the strength of its synthetic sound pallette.

Loudest Anthem

Music has been getting louder and more compressed over the years, as part of the so-called “loudness wars.” Still, out of all of these summer jams, the Jackson 5 classic “The Love You Save” puts the needle in the red more consistently than any other song.

Quietest/Rangiest

Ace of Base’s bouncy-sounding summer classic ”Don’t Turn Around” (1992) features lots of dynamic range and the least overall loudness.

Speedracer

Jimmy Eat World’s breakneck-paced “The Middle” is the fastest summer jam, with a tempo of 162 BPM.

Slowest Summer Jam

All-around outlier “Alone” by Heart is the slowest song to make its mark on summer jams in the U.S. in over 50 years.

Rarest Time Signature

There have been only four summer jam waltzes (in ¾ time) since 1962: Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” The Animals’ “The House Of The Rising Sun,” and Mariah Carey’s ”Vision of Love.” They go 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. All of the other jams have been in “regular” 4/4 time (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).

Rarest Key

The most seldom-heard key among summer jams was E-Flat. You can hear it in TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Little Eva’s “The Locomotion.”

Most Popular Key

On the other hand, summer jams in the key of C abound, especially the major variety. Maybe it’s because C Major is the easiest key to play on a piano (no black keys).

You can listen to the summer jams from 1962 to 2014 here. The last four songs represent our predictions for this year’s summer jams based on Spotify listening data: 

All of the summer jams, from 1962 to this summer, share certain traits. They tend not to feature heavily acoustic sound, instead trending towards technologically-created rhythms and melodies. Summer jams also tend to be really good for dancing, particularly this year.; they’re high-energy; and they’re happy.

As for the summer jams of 2014 specifically, they tend to be dancier, longer, faster, more artificial sounding, louder, and not quite as happy-sounding as in years past, although still in the positive part of the emotional spectrum.

 

 (Image courtesy of Flickr/gfpeck)