Study: Lyrics of No. 1 Hit Songs Average a Third-Grade Reading Level

Frank May/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Frank May/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Have you ever been driving along, listening to the latest hit song on a Top 20 radio station, and thought, “Man, these lyrics are really dumb?”

Well, you’re not alone.

According to a new study conducted by data wiz Andrew Powell-Morse, the lyrics for the last decade’s No. 1 hit songs average a third-grade reading level. Powell-Morse analyzed 225 songs that had spent three or more weeks atop the Billboard charts in four different genres (R&B/Hip-Hop, Country, Pop, and Rock) and found that a second-grader with slightly higher-than-average reading comprehension skills would have no problem grasping the lyrics.

While the study’s findings seem obvious to anyone who has flipped on a radio in the last few years, there are a number of surprising points in the data.

According to the study, country music is the “smartest” genre lyrically, with an average grade-level of 3.3. Pop and rock tie at 2.9, while today’s hip-hop could be fairly well-understood by a second-grader in the latter half of the school year.

Powell-Morse says country music’s lyrics are more advanced than other genres because they contain a lot of longer, harder-to-pronounce words like “cigarettes” and “hillbillies.” But country music also generally contains fewer words than rap and pop songs, giving it another distinct advantage.

The study also looked at the most prolific seven artists in each genre to see how their lyrics stacked up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Eminem topped the R&B/Hip-Hop chart with the “smartest” rap lyrics at a 3.7 grade-level. Nicki Minaj and Macklemore came in at number two and three, respectively, while Beyoncé’s lyrics averaged a 2.25.

Carrie Underwood has the most advanced lyrics (3.72) in country music, while Mariah Carey tops the pop category with a respectable 3.95.

The study’s most unlikely finding is that Nickelback wins out in rock music; a third-grader with a healthy appetite for reading could probably decipher the lyrics to the band’s 2005 hit “Photograph.”

Overall, Blake Shelton’s 2010 hit “All About Tonight” was the “smartest” song of the last 10 years with an average grade level of 5.8, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s “Dani California” follows in a close second (5.5). Meanwhile, a kindergartener could probably read the lyrics to the Three Days Grace song “The Good Life” without a dictionary, as the song averages a 0.8 on Powell-Morse’s scale.

To see the full study, click here. Just know that the next time you catch yourself rolling your eyes at the lyrics of the Black Eyed Peas’s “Boom Boom Pow,” you’ve got the data on your side.


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