Eurovision Song Contest research

Regular readers will know that I have been live-blogging the Eurovision Song Contest final since 2011. Every year I sit down in front of the TV, metronome and guitar in hand, and write live musical analysis of the songs in real time, then attempt to predict the winner before the voting starts. Here’s the full archive 2011-2019 (spoiler – I only managed a home run in 2015, with all the top 3 correct, in the right order). My approach (in all musicology) has always been to try to analyse and understand the underlying songs/tracks on a musical level, and move past all the camp theatricality and geopolitics. I take the view that all popular music is ‘good’ by someone’s standard, and that it’s as interesting to analyse songs from a mainstream TV event like the ESC as it is to look at more obscure/highbrow material. Those who carry the scales of musicology should be blindfolded.

‘Volcano Man’ by fictional Icelandic duo Fire Saga, played by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. The songs in the movie were written by Atli Örvarsson.

In 2020, the planned contest in Rotterdam was canceled due to worldwide restrictions, but in a strange turn of events, Netflix asked me to undertake some academic research into the musical characteristics of the songs over the past decade. The research was commissioned in part as a celebration of the contest, and also to promote the release of the 2020 movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Working with my friend and colleague Simon Troup (Digital Music Art UK), we analysed the 259 finalists from 2010-2019, immersing ourselves in the corpus over an intense 15-day listening period, and extracting high-level data (key, BPM, style, lyric theme etc) to see what we could learn about voter preferences and song evolution.

We’ll be publishing a pre-publication version of the research paper very soon, and the full academic paper sometime in 2021 after peer review, so this blog post is a preview of some of the early findings, with some song excerpts, and commentary on the songs from the 2020 contest that never was, and also some analysis of the songs from the movie.

Songs for Europe: a music and lyric analysis of 259 finalists from the Eurovision Song Contest 2010-2019

A research project in progress 2020-2022

Project Summary:

Two musicologists[1] have published the early findings of academic research analysing the 259 songs that have appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest finals 2010-2019. They used a combination of computer analysis, music transcription, immersive listening, and lyric interpretation to identify every song’s lyric theme, style, and musical attributes, and then analysed the data to explore the characteristics of the songs that attract the most votes in the contest.

Headlines:

  • There are six broad ‘archetypes’: Euro-pop, Ethno-pop, Ballad, Anthem, Schlager and Chanson.
  • There are six broad lyric subjects: Love, Unity, Self-Assertion, Partying, History and Music, with love songs accounting for 69% of the whole, and 83% of the top 3.
  • The most popular styles are Euro-pop, Ballad, Ethno-pop and Anthem, accounting for 79% of the total. The older styles (Schlager and Chanson) account for less than 5% of finalists.
  • The classic Eurovision cliché of a key-change in the final choruses is alive and well, appearing in almost 20% of the finalists, but not among any of the winners.
  • Eurovision appears to enjoy sadder songs in recent years – “winter” love songs have been more popular since 2018.
  • The most successful finalists are Azerbaijan and Sweden, who qualified 9 times out of 10 (UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France aka the ‘Big Five’ are guaranteed a place in the final).
  • 65% of all songs were in a minor key; of these, more than half used the Aeolian mode aka natural minor scale.
  • The mean average tempo is around 104 BPM, although the actual tempos tend to group around 70BPM (Ballads) and 125 BPM (Euro-pop).
  • Eurovision winners are slowing down; the average tempo of the top 3 scoring songs dropped from 148 BPM (2010) to 76BPM (2019), helped by some successful Ballads in 2017 and 2019.
  • Many popular styles of music outside Eurovision (metal, hip-hop, rap, punk, trap, country, techno) are almost completely absent from the contest, although they have an influence on the production of the archetype styles. Eurovision song styles appear to have ‘evolved’, in the cultural Darwinism sense, independently from mainstream global pop music. The researchers speculate that this is due to the particular cultural and structural factors at play in the Contest, in contrast to the more unregulated market forces that decide the popularity of mainstream hits.