The perfect musical formula for winning Eurovision – and why the UK is way off the mark

Analysing the key, pitch, tempo and lyrics of past Eurovision winners and losers shows us that we’ve got it all wrong.

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If the UK turned in such consistently woeful performances in international sporting competitions as it did in the Eurovision Song Contest, you can bet that every last one of the athletes, coaches and managers involved would have been subjected to some pretty brutal evaluations.

If Team GB’s gymnasts fail to secure a single medal in Rio this summer, it wouldn’t be enough for the coaches just to claim that international athletics is all political these days and the judges didn’t give us any points because all the other countries hate us.

Imagine Roy Hodgson announcing that, after a disappointing performance in Euro 2016, his big plan to turn England’s fortunes around is to host a penalty shoot-out show on BBC4 and leave the national squad selection to a televote.

Yet year after year, after suffering massive international embarrassment each and every time, this is exactly what we do with Eurovision.

In the face of such failure in sport, forensic analysis would be applied. Every aspect of training and technique would be appraised. They would study the competition, looking out for strengths they could copy or weaknesses they could exploit. Everyone – from top to bottom – would have a meticulous programme to follow.

It’s clear we haven’t even vaguely attempted to do anything similar with Eurovision because if we’d have taken the most cursory glance at the trends, patterns and theories involved in winning the contest we wouldn’t be sending the sorts of songs that we always, always do.

Allow me to explain.

Key

As far as pop music is concerned, there are two main types of key you can write a song in: major or minor.

Songs in major keys tend to sound bright, happy and joyful, whereas songs in minor keys tend to sound darker and more moody. If you’re thinking that brightness, happiness and joy are just the things to clinch Eurovision victory, then you are falling into the very same trap that the UK repeatedly plunges itself into.

Although songs in major keys did great business at Eurovision in the 20th century, Europe’s tastes have changed. Since 2000, 12 of the 16 winning entries have been in a minor key.

And it’s not just that minor keys are three times more likely to win; major keys are actively harmful to your chances. In those same 16 competitions, 11 of the songs that came in last place were in a major key (including one dreaded nul pointer).

The available evidence suggests that if you want to be in with a shot at winning, you need to write your entry in a minor key. In the last ten years, seven of the songs that the UK has sent have been in major keys. Two of them came dead last.

Our entry this year? Major.

Pitch

Drilling down to inspect the keys a little further, we start to see another pattern emerging. Little clusters of winning and losing pitches crop up, showing us that specific keys tend to win more than plain probability would suggest.

If the competition was simple chance, the odds for any individual key to win would be 1/24 (there are 12 distinct “root” notes in Western music, each of which has a corresponding major and minor key – so 24 keys in total).

However, the key of D minor has won the competition three times in the last ten years alone – the key of Molitva, Fairytale and Rise like a Phoenix – which is a wildly disproportionate rate of success.

D minor should be the very first key you look at if you want to win Eurovision.

Our entry this year? B major.

Tempo

The tempo (or speed) of entries varies quite significantly. Winners are placed on a wide spectrum of beats per minute, one that runs from the slow, ballad-esque count of 76bpm at one end to the jaunty, pop-stomper pace of 190bpm at the other.

But it’s the losers that we need to pay attention to here, because the tempo that keeps cropping up time and time again is one that does so at the bottom of the table: 128bpm.

There is a mathematical explanation for why this very precise figure of 128 appears so frequently. At a tempo marking of 128bpm, 96 bars of 4/4 works out at exactly three minutes.

4/4 is the time signature that almost all pop songs are written in; three minutes is the upper limit that Eurovision rules allow; and a 96-bar template is an extremely versatile one to work with as it’s divisible by so many numbers.

Whether you’re working in four-bar phrases, six-bar phrases, eight-, 12- or 16-bar phrases, you can mix and match them with ease in a 96-bar structure knowing that, however you choose to set up the various sections within it, it will always end bang on the three-minute mark.

However efficient that technique might be though, it’s actually proving to be deadly for Eurovision entries. Three of the last five entries to come last were paced at 128bpm – marking it out as the one tempo that you want to do everything in your power to avoid.

Our entry this year? 128bpm

Lyrics

It’s not all musical theory either. The lyrics are just as important. You might think all Eurovision lyrics are just a bunch of hack, tossed-off cliché – and you’d be entirely right. But you have to toss off the right sort of cliché if you want to win.

Picking out key words from the last 15 years of lyric sheets at Eurovision, we see that there are patterns here too. Much like the swing we’ve seen towards minor keys in recent contests, winners have also tended to use moodier language, singing more about stormy weather (thunder, rain, lightning, clouds) than the five losers who chose to sing about sunshine.

Sometimes a distinction can be incredibly subtle. Walking or running to somebody is bad (nine combined uses by losers; only one winner) but talk of flying is great (six combined uses by winners).

Holding something in your hands is something losers do (mentioned four times by people who came last). Taking something in your arms is a much better alternative (mentioned twice by winners).

But the biggest clanger of all – something that has been mentioned by nine losers since the turn of the century – is talk of your heart. Talk about your mind, your eyes, any other organ. Just don’t talk about your heart.

Our entry this year? First word “Heartbeat…”

Key change

If this is all sounding a little bleak, we can at least pat ourselves on the back for not including a key change.

Often joked about as being the essential ingredient in any good Eurovision entry, key changes are actually quite rare these days. Usually it’s a sign that a song has run out of steam, used to generate a final bit of momentum to hurl its tired body over the finish line.

Only three winners have incorporated key changes since 2000 and, even then, they have been relatively tame affairs (a semitone here, two semitones there). Anything more extreme than that – like Belgium’s horrendous six-semitone leap in 2000 – and you’ll wind up sinking down the leaderboard like a stone.

Our entry this year? No key change. (So although we’ve picked a pretty dreadful key, we are at least sensible enough not to try to change it mid-song.)

***

All in all then, it looks like we need to brace ourselves for another disappointment – but don’t lose heart. British pop music is some of the best regarded in the whole world. We have all the tools we need right here to win this competition again, we’re just using them all in completely the wrong way.

The sooner we realise that (and the sooner we get a bit more Moneyball about this whole thing) the sooner we’ll be holding that trophy high again.

Roll on 2017.