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The Top Forty or Top 40 is a music industry shorthand for the currently most-popular songs in a particular genre. When used without qualification, it typically refers to the best-selling or most frequently broadcast popular music songs of the previous week. Top 40 became the dominant radio format of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s


The Top 40, whether surveyed by a radio station or a publication, was a list of songs that shared only the common characteristic of being newly released. Its popularity coincided with the rapid changes in recording technology in the 1950s and 60s. In 1954, the recording industry agreed upon a standard recording format for higher fidelity music, so any new record player could play any new record. Also that year, new single records were released on 45 rpm records and the Top 40 thereafter became a survey of the popularity of these records. Tape recording had become perfected, allowing artists more freedom as they composed songs, especially novelty songs.

In the heyday of Top 40, between two and seven songs would enter and leave the survey each week. Chart runs could range from a week or two, to several months. Generally, only the biggest hits of a given year would remain on the charts for fifteen weeks or more. Fans would associate seasons and semesters with the songs they remembered from the juke boxes or the radio.

Jingles, contests, listener dedication, news updates, traffic reports, and other features were designed to make Top 40 radio particularly attractive to listeners. By early 1964, the era of the so-called "British Invasion", Top 40 radio had become the dominant radio format for North American listeners and quickly swept much of the Western world, being brought into the United Kingdom by offshore stations such as Wonderful Radio London, and later adopted by BBC Radio 1. Some stations tried extremely "tight" radio playlists, going with the Top 30 or even the Top 20 songs, but most industry experts felt that listener fatigue would set in more quickly with smaller lists. Top 40 quickly became the dominant radio format of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, although as music formats began to fracture, most stations began to specialize in certain restricted kinds of popular music, usually playing specific types of rock such as mainstream, the so-called "soft rock", or other music charted by radio industry trade publications.

Other lists of hit songs may include a different number of entries, such as a "Top 50" or "Top 100".

By the late eighties and early nineties, the 45 rpm record would decrease in popularity and other means would be used to evaluate the popularity of new songs. As a result, chart runs for songs tend to be longer than they were in the 1960s and 70s.

In contemporary publications

The current top songs are tracked by a variety of trade publications, such as:

Radio programs that highlight currently popular songs also refer to the "Top 40":

In contemporary radio

Further reading

  • Durkee, Rob. "American Top 40: The Countdown of the Century." Schriner Books, New York Citymarker, 1999.
  • Battistini, Pete, "American Top 40 with Casey Kasem The 1970s.", January 31, 2005. ISBN 1-4184-1070-5.
  • Douglas, Susan, "Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination," New York: Times Books, 1999.
  • Fong-Torres, Ben, "The Hits Just Keep On Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio", San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1998.
  • MacFarland, David, "The Development of the Top 40 Radio Format", New York: Arno Press, 1979.
  • Fisher, Mark, "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation", New York: Random House, 2007.
  • Goulart, Elwood F. 'Woody', "The Mystique and Mass Persuasion: Bill Drake & Gene Chenault’s Rock and Roll Radio Programming[38676]", 2006. :D


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