Number Ones!

'What has happened to popular music in the UK in the last 60 years? - A statistical investigation.' 

A cracking database on the history of British Number One singles provides an excellent basis for a bit of investigation! Find in the database, the titles of songs, the names of the artists, the runtime of the songs, the number of weeks spent at number one! Use the activities below to help you investigate what has happened to popular music in the last 60 years! Any activity below can be done in isolation or the whole thing and more can be done as part of a whole project on the history of UK number one singles. Either way this is an opportunity to practise the application of statistics to some real interesting data.

Nostalgic number ones

Although the data and project are essentially UK based there is lots of nostalgia to be enjoyed looking back over some of the songs (good and bad) that went with the times. The series of videos below starts in 2009 and slowly works its way backwards. They give 10s clips of hit tracks over time. You can skip by looking at the related videos column on the right if 80s are more your thing! Be careful - Once you start its hard to stop, but is good to give some context to this activity! I have selected the two videos below as a good starting point for making comparisons.

Streaming Services

It lends a lot of fun to this activity to have a soundtrack going, looking at some of the tunes that come up in discussion. For example, when looking at the longest and shortest songs it is great if you can play them straight away! Here are two music streaming services that can help along with the ubiquitous Youtube. They will both require a sign up in advance. Spotify and  Deezer


You will need the following to get you started....

 UK Number ones Data - Here is a spreadsheet with the data you need in it to get started.

 Making Hypotheses - Anyone who likes their music will want to look at this database and test out their theories on how popular music has changed. Making Hypotheses is the crucial place to start.

 How long is a song number one for? - Are we in the age of one hit wonders? Did it used to be like that? What's the longest a song has stayed at number one? These questions and more in this exercise. Activity involves barcharts/frequency polygons, mean averages and scattergraphs.

 Popular Genre - What sort of songs make it to the top? Has that changed over the years? Compare the distributions using Pie Charts.

 How long is a hit song? - What's the secret formula? How long should it be? Look at how the length of songs has changed. Use grouped and cumulative frequency to answer these questions. This includes estimating the mean from some grouped data and comparing the distributions for each decade with a box and whisker diagram.


Here follows an outline of what the task is. If students are not reading this page then the teacher will need to show and give this overview.

  • Students are introduced to the idea by being shown some of the videos above and then the database of number on singles. This will usually stimulate some discussion about popular music and how it has changed over time.
  • The discussion mentioned above needs to be channelled into the making of hypotheses.
  • Thereafter, students can follow any of the listed activities in any order. It does help to get groups working on different decades so that they all get the experience of processing the data, but don't all have to do the repetition.
  • At this point the activity could be extended to in a number of different directions that may use different statistical skills.

I did it my way!

As a practising maths teacher I know that most of us like to give activities our own little twist and do them 'our way'. It would be great to add a little collection of 'twists' from users. You can either add your twist to the comments section below or e-mail them directly to me at In time, some of these twists may appear here....

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