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The most recognized tune of all time

Simple question. What tune would you say is the most recognized tune? If we limited ourselves to the United States and the present day, the answer might be “Happy Birthday.”

What if we included all time and all nations? “Happy Birthday” goes back to only 1893. Some tunes are much older, like “Greensleeves,” (16th century) but well-known in only some nations. While others have global reach, but are of more recent vintage, like McCartney’s “Yesterday” (1965).

So what do you get if you account for both factors and try to seek the tune that the most people in history would be able to recognized, something that has great durability over time as well as a global reach?

Any ideas? I’ll hold my guess and post it later.

{ 40 comments… add one }
  • Denis 2007/08/10, 12:11 pm


    If you are only concerned with absolute reach, you will probably have to look in Indian, Chinese or Arabic music. Within Western musical tradition, classical tunes like Fur Elise or Rondo Alla Turca will be contenders, and going even further back, some of Bach’s music is widely known although not always recognized.

    You have to compare apples to apples, though – there are relatively clear geographical and stylistic divisions that may render meaningless the quest for the greatest tune of all times and all peoples. Until relatively recently only the church had the penetration and the clout to make some tunes to become widely known across national borders, and you would think that some of the service music will claim the title.

  • Rob 2007/08/10, 12:40 pm

    That certainly may be possible, that the most recognized tune is an ancient traditional in China that I have never heard. Interesting idea.

    Western classical music is a possibility. Everyone knows the opening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, right? But that is only 200 years old.

    And by saying “recognized” I’m meaning something less than “identified.” So if you hear Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and can say, “Yes, I recognize that tune” then it passes, even if you cannot gives the name or composer.

  • Steven G. Johnson 2007/08/10, 2:26 pm

    Given the nearly exponential growth of the world population over time, the number of the people on the planet over the last two hundred years seems to roughly equal the number of human beings who ever lived prior to 1800. This is just eyeballing…a more precise number could be obtained by looking at the cumulative sum of these population estimates. So you only need to consider relatively recent music.

  • Rob 2007/08/10, 3:29 pm

    Another factor would be radio broadcasts. Any tune that was broadcast since 1925 or so has had an easier time reaching a larger audience than tunes before radio.

    So any song that has been popular consistently since then should rate highly.

    Good grief, is the answer to this puzzle going to end up being Al Jolson singing, “California, Here I Come”? I was hoping for something more dramatic.

  • Brandon 2007/08/10, 3:40 pm

    If I was guessing lyrics, I’d bet on the “Hare Krishna” chant, but it’s been in too many different tunes for me to be sure one of those tunes is globally well-known.

  • dweir 2007/08/10, 3:55 pm

    If music is a language, I’m going the etymological route. I’m guessing that it is some Arabic motif.

    Beginning in the sixth century, rising cultural centers in Arabia came in contact with the musical traditions of Byzantium, Persia, and points east. Two hundred years later, Ibn al Munajjim described a system of eight melodic modes, each based on a diatonic scale spanning an octave. This written notation would have further extended Arabic music’s influence. Beginning with the Crusades in the eleventh century, this musical tradition, already rich in theory, would have been introduced to the western world. We see that influence in the name derivation of early instruments, including lute from al-‘ud and anafil (the Spanish word for natural trumpet) from naffir.

    So, my guess is that much of the world’s musical tradition has grown out of this early system. If any one tune was popular then, perhaps it has persisted through time as a melody that is familiar, if not recognizable.

  • Anonymous 2007/08/11, 2:47 am

    My guess is Silent Night

  • Anonymous 2007/08/11, 11:54 am

    My initial reaction was the same as stephen g. johnson’s (population more than doubled since 1960). And American pop music has global reach. If you don’t want the answer to be something like “Like a Virgin” or whatever the latest pop princess’s latest hit is, then you’re going to have to weight the numbers for population of the civilized world over time. But I suppose the restricting it to the civilized world would handle that already, no need for fudging the numbers.

    If you do weight the numbers, then longevity counts for a lot. But I don’t think we have good records of pre-medieval music.

    My answer: the most recognized tune has been forgotten.

  • Rob 2007/08/11, 12:38 pm

    @dweir has a point. Certainly, out of a wide variety of musical systems there arose first a modal system and then our familiar diatonic major/minor scales. And in folk and primitive music we often find the pentatonic scale. But I don’t think I’d call a scale a tune.

    There have certainly been partial tunes, even just a bass line that have carried far. For example, there was the “La Spagna” bass that showed up all over the place in the 15th century. Everyone seemed to want to blend it into their music and we have hundreds of examples where it was used. But if you heard it today, almost no one would it. It has dropped out of our musical vocabulary.

    The suggestion that a hymn would have the longevity as well as the geographic reach. How about the one called Old Hundredth?

    Another guess: The British national anthem. In the UK the words are “God Save the Queen”, but the same tune is also the American song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”. Its use as Britain’s anthem lead to widespread use throughout their colonies and Commonwealth nations. So I think that gives a significant temporal as well as geographical reach.

  • André Rebentisch 2007/08/11, 7:36 pm

    “Any ideas? I’ll hold my guess and post it later.”


    The notorious Nokia tune, right?

    But did you know: “The tune is an excerpt of a few bars from Francisco Tárrega’s Gran Vals”?

    And by saying “recognized” I’m meaning something less than “identified.” So if you hear Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and can say, “Yes, I recognize that tune” then it passes, even if you cannot gives the name or composer.

    Both ” REL=”nofollow”>Tárrega (1852-1909) and his Gran Vals are unknown to a larger audience.

    Wikipedia Quote: “He is also the composer of what has been claimed to be “probably the world’s most heard tune”: the Nokia ringtone Nokia tune or simply Nokia, also used in their advertising spots, is based on Tárrega’s Gran Vals.


  • Anonymous 2007/08/12, 10:10 am

    If you define tune as a set of chords in a particular sequence, my guess would be the Windows startup tune.

  • Steven G. Johnson 2007/08/12, 10:54 am

    I just hummed “Old Hundredth” to my American Jewish girlfriend, and she didn’t recognize it (I was on key, honest!). How many people in India and China do you think know this tune?

    Honestly, given the front-loading effect of population growth and mass communication, I doubt that “Happy Birthday” has any real competition. (I was just in Beijing, and at a restaurant with no other Westerners and not even a badly translated English menu I witnessed a group of waiters singing the song, in English, to a tableful of adult Chinese.) See also the Wikipedia article on Happy Birthday, which quotes some numbers from Guinness on how widely transcribed this song is.

  • Rob 2007/08/12, 3:15 pm

    I think we can make a good estimate of this.

    1) Take historical world population figures from, say 1700 to the present, at even intervals, say every 50 years or so.

    2) Model that data with some nice continuous function, exponential, a quartic, something monotonic, with a good fit. We’re not making any grand theories of human demographics, just looking for something that we can reasonably work with. Let the curve be p(t).

    3)Estimate the recognizability of each tune at a given time r(t). This would typically not be continuous. For “Yesterday” r(t)=0 before 1965 and maybe increases to 50% by 1980 where it remains constant. Pure speculation at this point, but speculation we can base on some reasoning.

    4) Calculate a integral of p(t)*r(t) over the entire time interval.

    We’re ignoring here the impact of increasing human lifespans. The longer the lifespan the fewer unique people alive in a given timespan at a given population count. But this should only be a 20% or so factor over this time period.

  • Alan Horkan 2007/08/23, 1:15 pm

    Auld Lang Syne?

    Silent Night/Stille Nacht?
    Bonus for being great in both English and the original German.
    Thinking multilingually there may be some nursery rhymes that cross the language barrier such as Frere Jacke.

    Perhaps some religious Christian tunes or hymns would be widely recognised.
    It is hard to imagine anything better known than Happy Birthday which makes it all the more pathetic to think people still claim copyright on a song which should rightly belong to our shared collective memory and culture.

    Then again if it is the tune that interests you as opposed to the lyrics then it becomes a lot more complicated and would require quite a bit of musical knowledge to realise which simple traditional songs share the same basic tune, cumulatively they might just be able to beat out Happy Birthday. Know any music scholars?

  • hucktunes 2007/09/28, 2:38 pm

    How about Dixie? Everybody knows that tune. Or the even older Buffalo Gals? But I think the most recognizable tune of all time is probably Turkey In The Straw.

  • Anonymous 2008/07/03, 8:34 pm

    its happy birthday

  • Amber Scruton 2009/06/09, 7:49 pm

    Oo, I definintely want to go with Alan Horkan and say Auld Lang Syne.

  • Dylan 2009/11/11, 8:55 pm

    "Scotland the Brave"? anyone?

  • Victor 2010/02/11, 9:01 pm

    Eine Kliene Nachtmusik – Mozart

    Almost everyone in the developed world has heard that tune and would instantly reconize it

  • Brian 2010/07/10, 9:46 pm

    Perhaps a bit old thread, but I’d have to say it could be any of the popular tunes learned as a child, which carry into adulthood. Wash and repeat. Happy Birthday, Mary Had a Little Lamb, etc. all qualify.

    Now, as an admirer of turn of the century marches (read: Sousa), I’d have to vote for Stars & Stripes Forever! as a widely recognized tune since shortly after 1896.

    There isn’t a high school marching band, symphony, youth symphony, musician or audience member (parents, siblings) the world over that hasn’t heard this tune and would not instantly recognize it, though perhaps the raw number would be less than the above-mentioned children’s songs, although it is also considered a popular children’s song. And, while it does have lyrics, I’d wager that only a handful of people know that it has lyrics, much less what those original lyrics are. More people likely know Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends as the “real” lyrics to the tune.

  • Rinus van den Berg 2010/12/20, 3:51 pm

    What about The Blue Danube and In The Mood

  • Austin 2011/06/14, 4:26 am

    Super Mario theme is very recognisable :)

  • Andrew 2011/06/26, 11:40 pm

    Lets think classic… what about Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Bourrée in E minor” ?

  • Christopher Zahrobsky 2011/09/24, 12:09 pm

    The nursery rhyme notion might be right. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is the same basic tune as Baa Baa Black Sheep and has been use by many classical composers.

  • Jesse Lehn 2012/01/04, 6:29 pm

    I am thinking Auld Lang Syne. It has been around and popular for a while and now you hear it every year at New Years Eve, but of course deserves to be played more frequently.

  • werkle 2012/02/27, 2:25 am

    The Twist by Chubby Checker

  • JPHolly 2012/03/14, 4:14 pm

    I teach Ethnomusicology (World Music) at a university. Other than “Happy Birthday” and “Silent Night,” the research that I’ve read strongly suggests that the most recognizable traditional melody in the world could very well be one of the songs of Stephen Foster, such as “Camptown Races” or ” Oh! Susanna.” The reason for this is that the songs of Stephen Foster, as with many folk-based songs from various different parts of the world, have melodies that are pentatonic. That is, they use only 5 of the 7 notes of the diatonic (or major) scale. Songs based on Pentatonic scales are believed to have a more basic or primitive appeal and are found in almost all cultures around the world. Since most traditional Chinese music is also pentatonic, the songs of Stephen Foster became very popular in the early 1900s and are still very widely known in China today, as well as in North America and Europe. (My copy of the sheet music for Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer” is a German edition.) These songs are also known in Africa, where they were brought by missionaries.

    When I first started teaching courses in World Music, I was very surprised to discover that the majority of college students nowadays recognize some of Stephen Foster’s songs, even if they have little knowledge or connection to them. This kind of folk music becomes part of the intangible culture and has very deep roots.

  • crystyl 2012/07/28, 11:27 am

    I would defenatly think it would be the olympic fanfare and theme.

  • Skrillex 2012/08/19, 7:10 pm

    Probably Numa Numa

  • Andy 2012/12/02, 8:14 am

    Amazing Grace.. hard to tell though because of the reasons listed above, The old classical’s as listed above as well ?

  • Kevin 2013/02/18, 12:45 am

    I would say with out a Doubt LED ZEPPLIN STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

  • Angela tommy 2013/04/03, 8:48 pm

    5. American national Anthem
    4.Beethoven 5th Symphony
    3 God save the queen
    2. Pink panther theme

  • Josh 2013/04/24, 7:35 pm

    the Darth Vader tune.

  • Adrian 2014/01/27, 5:43 am

    Super Mario Bros. Theme is played through most of the levels of the first two games, and appears in many games in the main series later (Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario 3D Land), and in other Nintendo titles (Tetris DS, Nintendogs, WarioWare, Smash Bros, Viewtiful Joe, Wii Music, Donkey Konga+++).

    Just think about it. At any given moment, there are A LOT of players of all ages either with their old 8-bit NES consoles playing retro, kids aged 6 playing the Virtual Console version on their Wii, Russian kids playing on their NES knock-off Dendy consoles, someone sitting on a train in Japan playing Super Mario Bros. on their 3DS consoles, an old person in a nursing home playing Tetris DS.

    People use it as their ringtones, bands cover the song all the time, there are keychains and an absurd amount of other paraphernalia that play the tune.

  • Stewart 2014/07/31, 9:17 am

    Surprised nobody has mentioned the funeral march (Chopin, Piano Sonata 2).
    Written in 1839 it has age in its favour. The tune has been adopted as the iconic melody of death even in countries where the western musical tradition has little sway and it is regularly broadcast as part of the funeral services of important figures which attract large audiences often on a worldwide scale. Add to that ironic and humerous references in film and TV and I think you may have a winner!

  • Ian 2015/07/31, 12:06 pm

    The Jaws theme must be considered a contender, in a few seconds the tune would be recognised by the masses.
    Appreciate the more knowledgable answers by you all, interesting debate.

  • phil 2016/12/10, 10:11 am

    ie.d say with out a dout beethovens 5th

  • Jacob 2017/01/26, 10:02 pm

    My suggestion, with how generic the song is, Taps.

  • Mark Fowler 2017/09/19, 8:21 pm

    Having read through this entire article – I’m so surprised NOT to have seen anyone mention the wedding march.

    • Mark Fowler 2017/09/19, 8:24 pm

      Wagners bridal chorus

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