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'Every Breath You Take' is the ultimate all-round song (according to science)

The Police lead singer Sting performs in 2007.
The Police lead singer Sting performs in 2007.

Some songs will never go away, like "Every Breath You Take" by The Police.

The song was a sensation when it was released in 1983, topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts for eight weeks. And today it plays on — the soundtrack to parties, weddings or trips to the grocery store.

Its popularity is a little surprising, though, because it's not a particularly flashy song. Its arrangement is flat and monochromatic, with a snaking guitar line, placid drums and Sting's faint and reverb-y vocals.

The drummer on the recording, Stuart Copeland, was even said to be frustrated with having to rein in his playing for the song's simple arrangement.

So why has it lived on? Some new research might explain it.

In a study published this week by The Royal Society, researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark analyzed streaming data for nearly 4 million songs on Spotify to see if there was a pattern to the types of music we listen to over a 24-hour period.

"We found that we could categorize it into five distinct time blocks throughout the day," says lead researcher Ole Adrian Heggli.

Those five time blocks were morning, afternoon, evening, night, and late night/early morning. And what researchers found was each block had different musical qualities.

In the morning block, slow but energetic songs dominated. Heggli suggested "Supreme" by Robbie Williams.

Louder, faster songs ruled in the afternoon. Think "Only Girl (In The World)" by Rihanna.

Danceable music ruled in the evening. You get the idea.

And it's not that surprising, if you think about it. The researchers say it shows how our music preferences are shaped by our daily rhythms.

If you want to get really technical, the research article is about something called "diurnal fluctuations" and how the "rhythm of human life is governed by diurnal cycles."

So what is a song with musical qualities that would allow it to drift through all five time blocks? You guessed it: "Every Breath You Take" by The Police.

"It's a very in-the-middle type of song," Heggli says. "It's a medium tempo. It's a bit groovy, but not too much groovy. It doesn't have any loud surprises. And it's all over just a very pleasant, perhaps even a bit bland song."

Heggli thinks this research might say something about how musicians can maximize their streaming potential.

"You should really aim for something that's more or less in the middle of the pack. Something that's not too high in tempo but also not too low, and something that's danceable but maybe not too danceable, either," he says.

Then again, "Every Breath You Take" is a special case.

Its presumed weakness has turned into its greatest strength. And it's possible that if you record with this streaming goal in mind, you will just write a bad, bland song.

Instead, if you're going to take this science to heart, maybe focus on writing the song that's best for a specific time of day, like 6a.m. or 8p.m.

"Every Breath You Take" may be eternal, but we probably don't need another one.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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