Shorter intros, more minor songs, fewer key changes: How Eurovision has evolved

·6-min read

Eurovision songs have become more fond of minor keys and four beats in a bar, while long introductions and lyrics featuring “la la la” are increasingly rare, research shows.

One of the most familiar musical ingredients, the key change, also looks to be on the way out, with next week’s contest in Liverpool marking the first time they have not appeared in a single song.

The findings are likely to reflect a range of factors, including “more acts submitting songs that are authentic to them” and a need to “get people on your side immediately”, experts said.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The PA news agency analysed all of the 1,373 songs that have appeared in the Eurovision final from the first contest in 1956 to the most recent event in 2022.

The research shows:

– Minor keys were rare for many decades, but they have accounted for more than half of songs in every year since 2005 with one exception (2013) and hit a high of 73% in 2021.

– Time signatures have become more standardised, with a strict four beats in a bar appearing in over 90% of songs in almost every year since the late 1970s.

– The “la la la” has fallen out of fashion: where once it was a staple of every contest, in the past three decades it has appeared in only nine finals.

– Introductions once tended to average about 10 seconds – sometimes ballooning to 14 seconds – but have shrunk dramatically in recent years, averaging under 10 seconds since 2013 and five seconds or lower since 2015.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“It’s no surprise intros have got shorter – in the TikTok and streaming eras, getting people hooked straightaway is essential,” according to Steve Holden, host of the official Eurovision Song Contest podcast.

“With only three precious minutes, you have to get people on your side immediately.

“We are generally impatient, so every second counts – some could argue there’s no time for waffle in a modern Eurovision entry. With dynamic staging too, it’s important an act makes an impact in the first few seconds.”

The findings, by the PA news agency, reveal that songs in a time signature other than a strict 4/4 used to be quite prevalent – in both 1964 and 1966 they accounted for half of all entries – but from the late 1970s four beats in a bar became increasingly the norm, often (as in 2011 and 2021) to the exclusion of any other measure.

Unusual time signatures have yet to disappear completely, however: Serbia & Montenegro and Macedonia had songs with seven beats to a bar in 2005 and 2007 respectively, while this year’s entry from Latvia features sections in 5/4.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

The exact line-up of this year’s final is yet to be decided, with 31 countries due to be whittled down to 20 in the semi-finals on May 9 and 11.

These countries will then join last year’s winners Ukraine in the final on May 13, along with the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, who all automatically qualify for a place as the biggest financial contributors to the European Broadcasting Union.

But regardless of who makes it to the final, one thing will definitely be missing from this year’s Eurovision: a key change.

For the first time, none of the semi-finalists, or the countries already in the final, have entered songs that contain this musical feature – one that appeared in more than three-quarters of entries in the late 1960s, and which was still turning up in around a half of songs in the early noughties.

“Key changes and Eurovision have long been the perfect marriage but they are associated with what some may call a stereotypical Eurovision song,” Steve Holden says.

“In the modern Eurovision age, more and more acts are submitting songs that are authentic to them, and they may not feel a key change is necessary. There is no point shoehorning one in if it doesn’t feel right.

“I feel key changes at Eurovision now are very knowing – acts would put them in because they’re a wink to Eurovisions gone by. But who knows – they make come back into fashion one day.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Their decline has been a fairly recent development, dropping to around a third of songs at the start of the 2010s, then falling to 15% in 2014, 8% in 2017, 4% in 2022 and none at all this year.

This trend, along with the growing prevalence of shorter introductions and minor keys, mirror the findings of a similar study last year by PA news that analysed 70 years of UK number one singles – all of which is likely to reflect “the advance of technology, which has upended previous ways of working in music production and composition”, according to chart analyst and historian, James Masterton.

“When you are doing it organically by playing live instruments, your instinct is to change things up a little to stop a song becoming tedious – and once upon a time that meant changing key. Now everything is on a computer screen you can be more subtle and shift the harmonics instead.”

One area where the history of Eurovision differs markedly from that of the pop charts is representation, with a strong mix of female and male artists from the very first contest in 1956, and only nine years in its entire history where all-male acts have been in the majority.

While the contest has also become more diverse in terms of ethnicity, this has been a slower process: all-white acts have made up at least 80% of entries in every year save two: 1999 and 2021.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

A few bursts of “la la la” have graced Eurovision songs for many decades, appearing in a quarter of entries in both 1969 and 1970, and 13% of entries as late as 2001.

But as with key changes, there are no songs in this year’s contest – whether already in the final or hoping to get there – with any trace of this lyrical hook.

“We may not be getting many la la las, but we are seeing lots of replacements,” notes Steve Holden, pointing to the “da da da” in the chorus of this year’s entry by the UK, I Wrote a Song by Mae Muller, or the repeated chants of “ah oh ah oh” in Promise by the Australian entry, Voyager.

“Also, there has been a winning song called La La La – by the Spanish singer Massiel in 1968 – so surely no la la la could ever top that.”

The 1,373 songs that have appeared in every Eurovision final from 1956 to 2022 take just over 66 hours to hear in full.