Song In a Million Makes
the Gold Standard Song List
How Likely Is It?
National Populations and the Number of Potential "Songwriters"
Total Songs Composed
Annually (On Average)
If You Create a New Song That Nobody
Else Ever Hears, Is it Still a Song?
If You Write
It Down and Play it for Others, They Might
Consider You an Actual Songwriter
A Teeny Tiny Fraction of All Original Songs
Hypothetical Lists of Great
Songs That Do Not Duplicate Any of the GSSL Songs
~ ~ ~
One song in a million? How so?
For the claim of
“one-song-in-a-million” to have validity, the original pool of songs would
have to number 5,000,000,000—that is, one million multiplied by 5,000 (the
total number of Gold Standard songs).
Is it possible that the aggregate
population of the main English-speaking nations of the world could have
written 5 billion songs over a period of 100 years?
At first blush, it seems unlikely.
you consider variables such as:
- the total population of the English-speaking nations
- the definition of a “song”
- the informal circumstances of most songwriting,
then the one-song-in-a-million claim appears plausible. After all, a large
proportion of the population—maybe even the majority—creates songs without
even realizing it.
First, consider the total number of
people alive from 1900 to 1999 in the main English-speaking nations:
USA, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Jamaica.
The population of the United States,
for example, more than tripled between 1900 and 1999 (the growth factor
was actually 3.6, according to census data):
USA population in 1900:
USA population in 1999:
Population growth partly accounts for
the increase in the number of songs on the Gold Standard Song List (GSSL)
from decade to decade. Other main factors include the appearance of new
genres that triggered prolific bursts of songwriting at various times in
the 20th Century, and the advent and technical evolution of
music-distributing electronic media such as the recording industry, radio,
movies, television, and the Internet.
If you sum the US population for the
years 1900 to 1999 and divide by 100, you get an average population of 163
The aggregate population of the other 6
main English-speaking countries amounts to the equivalent to about 42% of
the population of the USA. This works out to an estimated average
population of non-USA English-speaking nations of 68 million annually over
the period 1900 to 1999.
Add ‘em up, and we have 231 million
people annually, on average. Let’s round it off to 230 million.
Residents of the English-speaking
countries wrote all but a small number of the 5,000 GSSL songs. So, for
the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume that all 5,000 GSSL songs
originated in the English-speaking nations.
These 5,000 songs were composed over a
period of 100 years, an average of 50 songs annually. The population
averaged 230 million annually. That is, 230 million people contributed 50
tunes to the GSSL each year, on average.
Which means that, for
“one-song-in-a-million” to be accurate, 230 million people would have to
have written 50 million songs per year, only 50 of which made the Gold
Standard Song List (on average).
How likely is it that 230 million
people would collectively compose 50 million songs in the course of one
Hmmm. That’s one song per 4.6 people
per year. That's sounding pretty reasonable.
Another way of putting it: 22%
of the population (1/4.6) would have to write one song in one year, with
78% not writing any songs that year.
But what does "write a song" actually
Consider what constitutes a song and
the circumstances of writing a song.
People create songs spontaneously all
the time—but don’t write them down. You have probably done this. You might
sing songs to yourself as you hammer nails into two-by-fours on a
construction site. You might be a new mother who makes up songs to sing to
your baby. You might work on a farm and sing songs as you feed the pigs
You might go hiking along a path by a
river, all on your lonesome, singin’ a song. An original song. A song no
one else has ever heard or ever will hear. Nevertheless, it’s a real song,
with an original tune and original lyrics. Artistically, maybe it’s
dreadful, or maybe it’s pretty good. You don’t particularly care. You’re
just singing some song you made up for your own amusement. When you reach
your destination, you promptly forget the song. That’s the end of it.
Did you write a song, then?
Of course you did! During your hike (or
your chicken-feeding), you created a real song, with words and a
tune—something no other species on earth can do. Just because you didn’t
write it down, that doesn’t mean you didn’t create a new, original song.
You did exactly that.
In any population, this type of
informal, unpremeditated, instinctive songwriting goes on ever and always.
Some people go through a “songwriting
phase” (especially young guys trying to impress girls) and write lots and
lots of songs. “Write” means memorizing an original tune and writing down
original lyrics. And maybe jotting chord changes above the words. Or
thumping out beats on a cardboard box.
Those who take songwriting seriously
enough to get called songwriters tend to write lots of songs every year
and record at least some of them. Mostly, the recorded songs don't make it
beyond the demo stage.
Recall, we’re attempting to account for
just 22% of the population creating just one original song per year.
(Which means 78% supposedly create no original songs at all—not even
spontaneous little ditties for self-amusement that no one else will ever
Of the 22%, quite a few people write many songs in the course of a
year, not just one song. Which means the percentage of songwriting
individuals in a population (including those who make up songs for
self-amusement only) could be significantly less than 22%, and still meet
the GSSL one-song-in-a-million claim.
All songs on the Gold Standard Song
List have been recorded and commercially released. On average, every year
from 1900 to 1999, record labels and independent artists released tens of
thousands of albums (hundreds of thousands of songs) in the
English-language nations. Many singles and albums had a distribution of
only a few hundred or a few thousand copies for a small regional fan base.
Not many had national or international distribution. Even fewer had any
significant commercial success.
So, given all the different types of
songwriting activity—the millions of spontaneous songs that
non-songwriters (chicken-feeders, singin' moms, riparian hikers) create
for their own amusement without ever writing them down, the countless
songs amateur tunesmiths write when they get the songwriting bug, the
thousands upon thousands of recordings of original songs released every
year—given all this, it seems pretty likely that 230 million people would
collectively create at least 50 million songs a year.
If this estimate is accurate—if 230
million people did in fact create 50 million songs (on average) annually
from 1900 to 1999—then only one song in a million (50 songs a year, on
average) made the Gold Standard Song List.
The correct fraction could be wildly
higher or lower. For example, if 230 million people created 200 million
songs a year (on average), instead of only 50 million songs a year, then
just one in 4 million songs made the Gold Standard Song List. But if 230
million people created a mere 5 million songs a year (on average,
including self-amusement-only songs), then only one song in 100,000 made
Whatever the exact figures (which we
can only estimate), the 5,000 songs represented on the GSSL amount to a
teeny tiny fraction of all the songs composed in the English-language
nations from 1900 to 1999.
OF THE GSSL
No claim is made that the 5,000 Gold
Standard songs represent ALL of THE 5,000 GREATEST popular songs composed in the
English-speaking nations from 1900 to 1999. That would mean all songs not
included on the GSSL must be inferior—clearly an absurd proposition.
If you had the time and patience, you
could probably compile quite a few lists of 5,000 excellent songs composed
from 1900 to 1999, adhering to the
selection criteria, without duplicating any of the Gold Standard songs.
However, the difference between such
hypothetical lists and the GSSL is that other such lists, not having any
GSSL songs, would necessarily consist mainly of obscure songs, however
excellent. The GSSL contains the great majority of the best-known
standards. Nearly all of the songs on the GSSL have some measure of
familiarity, a recognized stature—at least among aficionados of the
The songs on the Gold Standard Song
List have enough artistic and technical excellence, combined with enough
public exposure, to have found a more or less permanent place in the
public consciousness. Even though the majority were never big hits on the
pop-song charts, most have become standards in the context of their