It’s not an overstatement to say that Americans are listening to more music than ever before. According to music journalist Hugh McIntyre, Americans listen to an average of 32 hours of music every week — up from 23 hours just two years ago.
These numbers beg the question: How are people listening to music? David Pierce at Wired proposes the obvious answer: We use streaming services like Spotify more. But the question isn’t really about how we are squeezing nine more hours of music into our week. It’s about how we are taking it in. And what better way to understand the way we take in music than to turn to Shazam? The music-recognition app has compiled a list of the top 100 most Shazamed songs of all time, their Hall of Fame.
Take a quick look at the list. Or, better yet, take a page out of Pierce’s book and queue up the Spotify playlist. Start listening through track by track. Notice anything? We sure did. For starters, there’s no Taylor Swift, Drake, Rihanna or Adele. No one that would be instantly recognizable. This is understandable, given that the purpose of the Shazam app is to help users identify a song that tickles the hippocampus just as much as the earbuds.
As Dan Jackson over at Thrillist puts it, “In order to really kill it on Shazam and crack the top 10, you need to sound vaguely familiar but just unique (and new) enough to make potential Shazamers open the app.” There’s no question that Shazam usage reflects music trends and popularity. The app even uses big data to predict rising stars, The Guardian’s Siraj Datoo writes: “Shazam is able to use consumer behaviour to better judge the artists that have already started to pique the interests of listeners and are starting to gain traction.”
But we want to go beyond predictions. We wanted to explore why these songs capture people’s attention to the point of pulling up the Shazam app. Why are people Shazaming these songs instead of recognizing them outright? Do they have special qualities that tell a bigger story about the way we listen to music? We think so. As Pitchfork’s Rebecca Bengal says, your love of Rihanna may say more about who you are than who Rihanna is. But the individual songs that capture our collective attention paint a different picture of the music industry.
We Love Hearing Past Influences in Our Music
We’ve already written about the music trends of 2018. Maybe one of the most significant trends is the astoundingly wide range of influences over music making today. Given the top Shazamed songs, it seems this is where music trends intersect with listening trends.
But sometimes we need a little help with the placement. The influence of the songs in the top 20 makes these songs vaguely recognizable, but not immediately identifiable. John Legend’s “All of Me” feels like it comes from a different era, just with magically cleaner production. “Take Me to Church” is classic blue-eyed soul. Further, take the top song on the list: “Wake Me Up” by Avicii. The single combines pop synths with a country voice and feel. Are you in an EDM tent or a Seattle coffee shop? Maybe it’s a genius marketing move on the part of the DJ, but if you have fun listening then what does it matter? As Katie Bain at The Guardian puts it, “His music served as a sonic antidepressant for listeners around the world.”
The influence of the past plays no small part in what makes songs likely to be Shazamed — they are inherently familiar. Nothing encapsulates this quite like the hit single from Passenger, “Let Her Go.” Bill Lamb at Thought Co. writes that the sound will be instantly recognizable by any adult pop music fan: “It sounds like classic 1970s singer-songwriter pop, perhaps most notably the work of Cat Stevens.”
Further, We Like Hearing a Personalized Reflection of Our Past
Our craving for familiarity isn’t limited to just the musical influence of past stars and musical eras. It can also mean something more personal.
As a case in point, the Shazam Hall of Fame features a whole lot of Ed Sheeran, that ubiquitous singer-songwriter with a knack for speaking to everyone with his simple storytelling. Or, as music columnist Brian Boyd writes:
“Sheeran is by all accounts a lovely guy. But how much of all this love-in is down to the fact that he’s a nice, bright, white, middle-class musician who just plays his sweet songs, throws in a few self-deprecating anecdotes and leaves everyone with a smile on their face?” And that’s the thing, isn’t it? This is just the kind of music that leaves us smiling, even if we’re not entirely sure why.
Indie pop band Fun isn’t featured on the list, but lead singer Nate Ruess shows up in P!nk’s 2012 duet “Just Give Me a Reason.” Ruess’ hit album with Fun debuted the same year, and his contribution lends a sound that Jeremy Gordon at Pitchfork calls a “soulful troubadour and arena hero.” The combination is almost universally appealing.
These top Shazamed songs bring another kind of familiarity. They are often fit the song-of-the-summer brand of years past. Take that Passenger single, for example. The song was released in 2012, and was everywhere at the time. Ryan Reed called it ubiquitous in Rolling Stone. Now, it’s the song that you remember and maybe even place with a sweet memory.
These are the songs that we know and love, but that have since fallen by the wayside a little. When they come on the radio or the playlist, they bring a smiling nostalgia with them. The bottom line is we love listening to familiar music. Taylor Pittman over at HuffPost puts it perfectly: “We all know that some music makes us feel specific feelings or elicits certain memories that transport us back in time. And sometimes, a song is just plain catchy.”
Sometimes, it’s the same song on repeat, and sometimes it’s that summer hit you haven’t heard for a few years. Thankfully, there’s an app for that.
Genre May Not Be As Important As We Think
At first blush, the Shazam Hall of Fame is full of pop songs. They’re almost all songs you’ve likely heard on the radio in past years. But a second listen through the playlist reveals that many of the songs cross genre lines. There are singer-songwriters, rappers, electronic duos, R&B legends and self-styled folk rock musicians.
The fact that this array of musical styles is represented on a single playlist reveals that genre may not matter as much. More important is simply whether we enjoy the individual songs or albums. This gives listeners and musicians greater freedom. The Soul Playlist Blog writes that this breakdown can increase our enjoyment of music: “The thing about genre bending is that it lets artists have so much more creative freedom. They no longer have to stick to just one genre or one style of music.”
Take the perspective of Tim O’Brien, who has worked on R&D for Shazam. “Human concepts of labels like genre are the result of not just the musical audio, but our perception of it,” O’Brien writes. He goes on to say that categorizing music should be based just as much on individuals’ interactions with the audio as the audio itself. These days, streaming and sharing matter more than genre. More than ever, listeners are able to tell music producers and record labels what they’re listening to — and what they like about what they’re listening to.
As Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop says, in the age of streaming and digital downloads you decide the value of music. Artists are increasingly recognizing that crossing genre lines may be what the audience is looking for. And Shazam is just a part of that.
Shazam as a Curated Playlist of the Music We Didn’t Know We Loved
The Shazam Hall of Fame may bend genres and expectations, but it’s not haphazard or without logic. More than anything, it is a natural consequence of a musical age that has replaced the album with the playlist.
The usefulness of Shazam in this era of playing fast and loose with our listening habits is clear. As Dan Jackson sums up in his Thrillist post, hearing many of these songs in the wild is the “listening experience of having a word on the tip of your tongue but being unable to spit it out.” Shazam helps us spit it out, and teaches us what we love about music in the process.
Images by: Mpumelelo Macu, Alphacolor13, PlayTheTunes