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 The ultimate summer hits according to behavioural science

The ultimate summer hits according to behavioural science

Written by

James Picken


July 1, 2022



British summer time is finally here and BBQ season is in full swing, but what’s the recipe for success when it comes to hosting friends and family alfresco?

At Startle, we know your song choices can make all the difference.

That’s because the link between music and mood is powerful. Music hits us on a deep level and can even change how we see the world or remember something.

So, how can you create a sizzling atmosphere and fond memories, even if you burn the sausages?

To find out, our Creative Director and musical genius, James Picken, identified the 100 most popular songs in nearly 4,000 summer-themed playlists on Spotify. He then used behavioural science principles to name the top 10 ultimate summer hits to get the good vibes flowing based on their major/minor keys, BPMs, cultural significance and uplifting lyrics.

Here are the top 10 ultimate summer hits…

1. Harry Styles - Watermelon Sugar

Re-released in time for summer 2020, Watermelon Sugar is the perfect summer bop.

Lyrically, this song conjures up imagery of a hazy summertime. It's written in C Major key but with minor 7th chord progressions – what scientists have named ‘Happy Chords’ based on their ability to make us feel good when used with endearing lyrics like ‘sweet’ and ‘baby’.

"Tastes like strawberries on a summer evenin'"
Harry Styles - Watermelon Sugar

2. MGMT - Electric Feel

This 80s-inspired pop track by MGMT screams summer. Electric Feel dominated the 2009/10 summer festival circuit, transporting us back to a field with a drink in hand.

With a slower-than-average tempo for a pop song (103 BPM) but played in the uplifting C# Major key, it’s perfect for a relaxed afternoon. And despite being over a decade old, it’s been viewed on TikTok over 350 million times – proving to be hit with younger crowds too.

3. Vance Joy - Riptide

Ideal for a relaxed summer vibe, Riptide should be on any BBQ playlist. Being played in C# Major key with acoustic guitar, this song is easy listening and upbeat.

In fact, scientists believe string instruments like the violin and acoustic guitar replicate the patterns found in emotional speech. And culturally, we associate acoustic guitar with soothing qualities, so the track pairs perfectly with chilled summer moods.

4. Dominic Fike - 3 Nights

Featuring a prominent ‘walking bass’ line – consisting of notes of equal duration and intensity – 3 Nights has a clear sense of direction and momentum. 

The song may feel a little fast during the chorus (152 BPM), but the slower melodic rhythm of the verses and bridges creates a bit of a pull and push, pulling us in and pulling us together as a result. 

It’s also near impossible to not start singing along (or tap a foot at least) thanks to its catchy repetition, making this track a real crowd pleaser.

Palm trees
"Under streetlights in the city of palms"
Dominic Fike - 3 Nights

5. BØRNS - Electric Love

Summer love and intoxication go hand in hand, and Electric Love’s heavy reverberated layers of vocal help to create this distant, ethereal feeling.

It also has the power to get stuck in your head as it employs the classic 4 pop chords which repeat frequencies of the tonal (prominent key) more frequently.

6. Bill Withers - Lovely Day

There’s a good reason why Lovely Day continues to strike the right chord, despite being released nearly 50 years ago. 

Its slow tempo of 98 instantly relaxes you. Lyrically we are spoiled with summer-like imagery of a “lovely day”. Major 7th chords feature heavily (again) and fun fact: the end note is one of the longest in recorded history, held for 18 seconds.

7. Electric Light Orchestra - Mr. Blue Sky

With an impressive BPM of 178, Mr. Blue Sky should be the ‘peak’ of your playlist. 

Placing a high-energy track among slower, more relaxed tracks is scientifically proven to help improve people’s moods according to the ISO principle used in musical therapy.

Its feel-good lyrics perfectly capture that elation we all get seeing wall-to-wall blue skies in summer, too. Perhaps that’s why it has nearly 3 billion views on TikTok.

Hot air balloons
"Sun is shinin' in the sky, there ain't a cloud in sight"
Electric Light Orchestra - Mr. Blue Sky

8. Duke Dumont - I Got U

I Got U with its steel drum loop over a steady dance beat gives off tropical house vibes – perfect for a BBQ or summer party.

Steel drums and sunshine go hand-in-hand thanks to our brains linking the two stimuli together, meaning when we hear their bright and major harmonic tones, we get an instant hit of dopamine. Its long instrumental sections help to balance its higher energy 120 BPM, creating the push-pull effect.

9. Kygo - Higher Love

Kygo’s tropical house cover of Whitney Houston’s 1990 hit, Higher Love, accentuates the positivity and optimism we associate with warm summer days

Lyrically, the track is uplifting and evokes feelings of closeness, positivity and unity – just like how you feel when surrounded by friends or family.

10. Doja Cat - Kiss Me More (feat. SZA)

Another track that’s adorned with the so-called ‘Happy Chords’, and combined with high scores in danceability, positivity and energy, Kiss Me More should be on any summer playlist.

It’s also one of the most popular songs on TikTok we studied, racking up an impressive 7 billion views and counting. But be warned – you might want to pick the radio edit!

For any keen songwriters or dedicated playlist-curators, it seems there’s a recipe for the perfect summer hit: a pop song lasting between 3.5 to 4 minutes, with a tempo of around 118 beats per minute, in a major key. Aim for something with positive lyrics and lots of energy to lift the mood and have a summer to remember – come rain or shine.

As part of our analysis, we also identified the most popular artists in summer-themed playlists. Scottish DJ Calvin Harris came out on top, featuring over 1000 times in the playlists analysed. His hit record “Summer”, aptly crowned Spotify’s Song of the Summer in 2014, was the most common song across the playlists we studied.

Harry Styles was the second most popular artist, with his songs featuring over 750 times. This comes after his third studio album, Harry’s House, debuted at number one in the UK albums chart when it was released in May, instantly becoming the UK’s fasted-selling album of the year.

Of the 100 most popular artists in the playlists analysed, just six are women. Mixed groups don’t make up the numbers much, accounting for only nine spots, whilst 85 men or solely male groups make up the rest of the list. With these numbers, it doesn’t look like 2022 is “hot girl summer” after all.

"Let us listen!", we hear you cry. Well, the wait is over. Here are the top 100 summer songs featured across Spotify playlists, all combined into one for your enjoyment.

...and there you have it. Whilst you can’t predict the British weather, you can lean on science to provide you with the best songs to soundtrack your summer this year – now get those BBQs fired up!


We used Playlist Miner to find the 100 most common tracks in 1000 global Spotify playlists containing the following keywords in the playlist title: ‘bbq’, ‘summer’, ‘sunny’, and ‘sunshine’ (correct as of 23rd May 2022). These keywords were combined to provide the 100 most popular tracks and artists overall.

Internal Startle data was used to find out the musical characteristics of the songs. To work out the characteristics of the perfect summer song, modal data was recorded to determine key, and era, whilst the mean was calculated for the tempo (measured in beats per minute), song duration, loudness (measured in decibels), danceability, energy, positiveness, and speechiness.

Finally, Chartmetric was used to identify the number of TikTok views (correct as of 20th June 2022).

James Picken, Creative Director and Behavioural Science Expert at Startle, selected his top 10 summer playlist tracks based on our playlist analysis and widely accepted scientific principles.

 The ultimate summer hits according to behavioural science

James Picken

Creative Director at Startle. It's my job to produce and execute our music output, making sure everything is sounding, feeling and performing just right for our customers. When I'm not doing this, you can find me either walking my dog, remixing 90s divas on Logic Pro X, returning overdue library books or throwing weights about in the gym.

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