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A scientist crunched the numbers — here's what makes 'Every Breath You Take' eternal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some songs will just never go away - like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) Every breath you take and every move you make.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Police, of course - "Every Breath You Take" was a huge sensation when it came out in 1983. And today, it plays on - the soundtrack to parties and weddings, trips to the grocery store.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I'm not surprised at all that people continue to gravitate to it in part because it sounds so distinct.

KELLY: That is NPR Music's Stephen Thompson.

THOMPSON: It's actually kind of a monochromatic arrangement. It has that one really memorable kind of snaky guitar line to it. But otherwise, that song kind of sits flat. And weirdly, I think over the decades, that has kind of been flipped from what might be seen as a weakness to a strength.

CHANG: Well, now there's some new science that might explain the song's staying power. In a study published this week by the Royal Society, researchers 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.

OLE HEGGLI: And we found that we could categorize it into five distinct time blocks throughout the day.

KELLY: Ole Heggli of Aarhus University says those five time blocks have different musical qualities. In the morning block, slow but energetic songs dominate. Heggli suggested "Supreme" by Robbie Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPREME")

ROBBIE WILLIAMS: (Singing) When there's no love in town, this new century keeps bringing you down.

CHANG: Now, louder, faster songs rule in the afternoon, like "Only Girl (In The World)" by Rihanna.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY GIRL (IN THE WORLD)")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world.

KELLY: Danceable music in the evening - you get the point. And it's not that surprising. Scientists say it shows how our music preferences are shaped by our daily rhythms.

CHANG: But here's the catch - the song whose musical qualities would allow it to drift through all five time blocks? Well, you guessed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE")

THE POLICE: (Singing) I'll be watching you, every breath you take, every move you make.

HEGGLI: Mainly because it is a very in-the-middle type of song - it's a medium tempo. It's a bit groovy, but not too much groovy. It doesn't have any, you know, like, loud surprises. And it's all over just a very pleasant, perhaps even a bit bland song.

KELLY: So is there anything artists trying to score a hit can learn from The Police? Heggli thinks yes.

HEGGLI: You should really aim for something that's, you know, 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.

CHANG: NPR's Stephen Thompson is not so sure.

THOMPSON: I don't think it's a bad thing if there's a song that's best for 6 a.m. If I'm up at 6 a.m. and I want to listen to music, I want to hear a song that's tailored to 6 a.m.

CHANG: Thompson says "Every Breath You Take" may be eternal, but we don't need another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POLICE SONG, "EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.