Desert Island Discs: Scientists reveal the most popular songs from 80 years

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Desert Island Discs has been described as a British institution and ‘the greatest radio programme of all time’. 

Now, researchers have scanned 80 years of data to reveal the most picked genres and artists since the show started back in 1942. 

The experts, based at the Alan Turing Institute in London, used publicly available data from more than 3,200 episodes spanning from 1942 to 2021.

They found that music genres have evolved substantially over time, with classical music from the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart dominating until the mid-1980s. 

But since then, the Beatles have consistently been picked, along with other popular artists Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone. 

Overall, Mozart is the most-picked artist in the history of the show, followed by Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Verdi. 

Meanwhile, the most chosen piece of music is Handel’s Messiah, selected by 119 of the show’s guests. 

According to the Desert Island Disc archives, the Beatles, David Bowie and Frank Sinatra are among the most-picked artists, along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart

According to the Desert Island Disc archives, the Beatles, David Bowie and Frank Sinatra are among the most-picked artists, along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart

Graph shows the most picked artist for each year Desert Island Discs has been broadcast, Classical artists such as Bach were more popular in the early years of the show, but more recently the Beatles, David Bowie and Nina Simone have been picked the most

Graph shows the most picked artist for each year Desert Island Discs has been broadcast, Classical artists such as Bach were more popular in the early years of the show, but more recently the Beatles, David Bowie and Nina Simone have been picked the most

The Alan Turing Institute researchers say Desert Island Discs is considered ‘a cultural touchstone’ and a ‘mainstay of the BBC Radio schedule. 

‘It likely will continue for many decades to come, and this analysis could be continued at future milestones,’ they said. 

Devised and initially presented by English broadcaster Roy Plomley, the format of Desert Island Discs is simple. 

Each episode, a guest – referred to as ‘the castaway’ – shares eight songs that they would want to be stuck with for the rest of their life if exiled to a desert island. 

MOST-PICKED TRACKS 

1. Handel’s Messiah (119)

2. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (111)

3. Mozart’s The Magic Flute (93)

4. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (83)

5. Bach’s St Matthew Passion (82)

MOST-PICKED ARTISTS

1. Mozart (993) 

2. Beethoven (837)

3. Bach (805)

4. Schubert (406) 

5. Verdi (371) 

The guest is notable in their profession, whether it’s music, art, academia, business, government or sport.

‘An invitation to be castaway is a sign of success in your field,’ the researchers say.  

For the study, the team referred to the BBC website and Wikipedia’s list of episodes, as well as streaming service Spotify to get genre and other information about selected tunes. 

Desert Island Discs was devised and presented by English broadcaster Roy Plomley (pictured)

Desert Island Discs was devised and presented by English broadcaster Roy Plomley (pictured)

Over the past two decades, the Beatles consistently top the charts, joined by Frank Sinatra (pictured), Bob Marley, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone

Over the past two decades, the Beatles consistently top the charts, joined by Frank Sinatra (pictured), Bob Marley, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone

The Beatles (pictured) were the most picked artist in the years 2017, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2004 and 1988

The Beatles (pictured) were the most picked artist in the years 2017, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2004 and 1988 

DESERT ISLAND DISCS: HISTORY AND FORMAT 

In 1942, a new programme appeared on the airwaves of the BBC that was created and presented by Roy Plomley.

The format was simple – a guest shared eight songs that they would want to be stuck with for the rest of their life if exiled to a desert island.

After a hiatus from 1946 to 1951, the programme returned with some new innovations – at the end of each episode the castaway chooses a book, a luxury, and one song to save from the waves.

The show was hosted by Plomley until his death in 1985, followed by Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley, Kirsty Young, and Lauren Laverne. 

The dataset runs from January 1942 – the month the very first show was broadcast – through to August 2021. Since August 2021, more episodes have been broadcast, but they have not been included in the data set. 

Over the course of 3,211 episodes looked at, there have been 2,950 castaways, with 241 people appearing on the programme more than once.  

The experts note that some data is missing regarding music choices for castaways early on in the show’s history, because audio recordings are missing. 

The BBC website has an online library of Desert Island Discs episodes dating back to the earliest episode known to still be in existence, from April 1951. 

Based on the available data, researchers found that classical music was the most-picked genre well into the 1950s and 1960s. 

This is likely due to its popularity and dominance well past the middle of the 20th century, even though rock and roll was taking hold in the 1950s. 

A shift away from classical music really only happened in the mid-1980s, coinciding with Plomley’s reign as host ending upon his death in 1985. 

This trend accelerated after 2000 and rock music now represents a larger proportion of discs than classical music, researchers point out.  

Bob Marley (pictured on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7, 1980 in London) was chosien

Bob Marley (pictured on stage at Crystal Palace Bowl on June 7, 1980 in London) was chosien 

Illustration depicts German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) as he plays an organ

Illustration depicts German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) as he plays an organ

As of the most recent data of 2021, rock music is the most popular genre, followed by pop and then classical. 

When looking at most popular choices by year, the Beatles were the most picked artist in the years 2017, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2004 and 1988. 

But Mozart has still been picked more than any other artist in certain years since the turn of the 20th century – 2013, 2012, 2008, 2002 and 2000. 

MOST POPULAR ARTISTS: RECENT YEARS 

2021: Nina Simone

2020: David Bowie

2019: Joni Mitchell

2018: David Bowie

2017: The Beatles  

MOST POPULAR ARTISTS: THE EARLY YEARS

1951: Bach

1952: Beethoven

1953: Handel

1954: Bach

1955: Bach

David Bowie (pictured here in 2002) has also been the most popular artist of the year in 2020 and 2018, according to the study

David Bowie (pictured here in 2002) has also been the most popular artist of the year in 2020 and 2018, according to the study

Mozart (1756-1791) is still a popular choice on Desert Island Discs. His music was picked more than any other artist in the years 2013, 2012, 2008, 2002 and 2000

Mozart (1756-1791) is still a popular choice on Desert Island Discs. His music was picked more than any other artist in the years 2013, 2012, 2008, 2002 and 2000

David Bowie has also been the most popular artist of the year in 2020 and 2018, which could be due to a surge in interest in his life and work since his death in 2016. 

When looking at genres chosen by different professions, athletes and business people appear to have ‘more popular tastes’, the team found. 

Aside from artists and genres, the researchers looked at other trends in the dataset, including information about the castaways.   

Throughout the bulk of the show’s long history, there have been significantly more male castaways than female, they found. 

In the show’s history, 68.6 per cent have been male and 29.7 have been female.

Also, the experts found the majority of castaways were born in the UK, but guests born in North America were a substantial percentage of early guests. 

In the early days of the programme, about half of the castaways were actors.

Colorized illustration (after an original Hammann engraving) depicts Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Colorized illustration (after an original Hammann engraving) depicts Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

Since 2018, Desert Island Discs has been presented by Lauren Laverne.

Since 2018, Desert Island Discs has been presented by Lauren Laverne. 

Although that proportion has decreased over time, the primary professions continue to be in the creative industries – actors, artists, journalists, musicians and writers. 

Also, in more recent years the proportion of castaways being grouped into the ‘other’ category has increased, indicating an increased diversity in occupations. 

Researchers also note that biologist Sir David Attenborough has appeared on the show four times, as did comedian Arthur Askey – more than anyone else.  

‘With any luck, Lauren Laverne will invite Sir David back again soon, at which point he will have the record for the most episodes all to himself,’ they say.  

The study, which is part of a series of publications called ‘Turing Data Stories’, has been detailed on the Alan Turing Institute’s website. 

ARE YOU AN EXTROVERTED ED SHEERAN FAN? MUSIC CHOICES ARE LINKED TO PERSONALITY, STUDY FINDS

We all have different tastes of music, whether it’s pop, rock, hip hop or classical.

But a recent study led by the University of Cambridge suggests that what we listen to actually says a lot about our personality.

It involved more than 350,000 people from over 50 countries and found that links between musical preferences and personality are universal. 

Researchers found that Ed Sheeran’s song Shivers is as likely to appeal to extroverts in the UK as those living in Argentina or India.

Those with neurotic traits in the US are also just as likely to be into Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit as people with a similar personality living in Denmark or South Africa. 

Worldwide, the researchers found the same associations between extroversion and contemporary music; between conscientiousness and unpretentious music; between agreeableness and mellow and unpretentious music; and between openness and mellow, contemporary, intense and sophisticated music.

Read more: What your music choice says about your personality 

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