STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In the pop music business, very few singles actually become hit songs, but musicians can now use a computer program to hone in on what they think you will like. The software is produced by a company called Music Intelligence Solutions.
NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL: Many of us like to believe that there's a little magic behind the making of a hit single. Take a song like "I Gotta Feeling" by The Black Eyed Peas.
(Soundbite of song, "I Gotta Feeling")
THE BLACK EYED PEAS (Pop band): (Singing) I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night. That tonight's gonna be a good night.
SYDELL: And that's a good song, judging by sales. It's topped the Billboard pop chart. David Meredith, CEO of Music Intelligence Solutions, says there's no magic in that. It's math. He says software gave the song a hit score of 8.9 out 10. It's called Hit Song Science.
Mr. DAVID MEREDITH (CEO of Music Intelligence Solutions): Which are a series of algorithms that we use to look at what's the potential of a song to be sticky with a listener, to have those patterns in the music that would correspond with what human brain waves would find pleasing.
SYDELL: Meredith says his software found that hits have certain common patterns of rhythm, harmony, chord progressions, length, lyrics. A study done by the Harvard Business School claims the software was accurate 8 out of 10 times.
This summer, Music Intelligence launched a Web site for songwriters called Uplaya. David Bell, part of the hip-hop duo the Block Scholars, paid 90 bucks to use it.
Mr. DAVID BELL (Hip-hop band, Block Scholars): It's an unbiased validation of your music. You know, it's not your family turning around and tell you, oh, you got a great song.
SYDELL: The computer told Bell he had a 7.1 - good, but not great. So he went back to the studio and remixed.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK SCHOLARS: (Rapping): Hold your head up, man. Uh-huh. Yo. Yo. Yo, this is for my people all around the world, trying to get what they deserve. You don't need no haters in your circle, so kick them to the curb.
SYDELL: He got his score to 7.6. That's platinum. He could hold his head up.
Mr. BELL: We can use Uplaya as a tool to figure out what songs we want to put in a demo to send to these labels and stuff.
Ms. KYM TUVIM (Singer-Songwriter): From an artist's standpoint, a songwriter's standpoint, it's horrifying to me.
SYDELL: That's independent singer-songwriter Kym Tuvim.
(Soundbite of music)
SYDELL: Tuvim can't stand the star-making machine behind the popular songs. She hates the idea of artists trying to fit their songs into algorithms.
Ms. TUVIM: You'll find a decreasing amount of any kind of surprises in music. This just becomes a tool to make that narrowing of the field more accessible.
SYDELL: Tuvim says her songs come from a mysterious place in her unconscious.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. TUVIM: (Singing) There ain't no lie. The boat can float away us from here. There ain't no lie. The boat can float us away from here. Yeah.
SYDELL: Tuvim might not love the computer, but the computer loves her song "Flood." It got a 7.3. That's platinum.
It doesn't surprise New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones that a computer can predict hits, but he doesn't think it can predict all the hits. Thank goodness, he says. Sometimes, songs come along that don't fit the mold.
Mr. SASHA FRERE-JONES (Music Critic, New Yorker): I think of a song like "Da Da Da" by Trio, which people love. They just love that song.
(Soundbite of song, "Da Da Da")
TRIO (New Wave Band): (Singing) Da da da.
Mr. FRERE-JONES: And I can't imagine that at the time, in '80-'81, that the software would have given that a very high rating. It was sonically very small. It sounded like a kid song. They might have told the band, no. No. No. No. No. Beef it up.
SYDELL: The software still doesn't think it's a hit: "Da Da Da" got a 6. Jones worries if Hit Song Science played too big a role in the music industry, a lot of good songs would never see the light of day.
Music Intelligence Solutions CEO Meredith calls his software a democratizing force in music, a sort of a computerized "American Idol." If an unknown, unconnected artist gets a high score, then his company will help promote them with record labels.
Mr. MEREDITH: We'll shine a spotlight on you. You'll get recognized, and we'll get the word out. And that's probably a good way for the industry to work relative to it being, who do you know. It's more about what kind of talent level that you have.
SYDELL: Meredith also points out that his software isn't writing the songs. Human beings do that - at least for now.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.