Finding The Value Of X

The X Factor often gets accused of being formulaic, but if that was really the case they wouldn’t need to waste so much of everybody’s time with auditions and bootcamps and the like. So we’ve tried to figure it out. We did some deep statistical analysis on the contest’s winners and now we’re ready to save Simon Cowell some serious man hours…

As the franchise creaks into its thirteenth season, reaction to the latest series of The X Factor has been somewhat tepid. The prospect of spending another three months with Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Sharon Osborne – the Mount Rushmore of reality TV panels – as they search for a star is almost too boring to bear.

The whole conceit of the show is that they’re searching for something indefinable (this much-vaunted “X Factor”) but how have they not figured out what that is yet? 12 years they’ve been doing it. You’d have thought they’d have at least been able to streamline the process a bit by now – but, no. Once again they’re embarking on another round of auditions, bootcamps and live shows.

Surely we have enough raw data on this to be able to crack the formula once and for all? For example, if we were to sit down and analyse the live show performances of every X Factor winner since the series began (which is more than 170 different renditions of songs in total) and strip them down to their nuts and bolts, we should be able to see what – if anything – makes a winner.

We’ll start off looking at the simple cosmetics of it, then gradually delve deeper and deeper into the technical and theoretical side of it. That way, if you feel things are getting a little too niche for you, you can bow out whenever.

And if, in the end, you feel like you’ve wasted way too much of your life reading this, please be assured: we have wasted much, much more of ours compiling it.

The Model Contestant

Back when the show was a three-judge affair, the acts used to be split into three categories: Groups, 16-24s, 25 and Overs.

With the introduction of a fourth judge in Series Four however, those categories changed. Acts were split up into Girls, Boys, Groups and Overs – and they have stayed that way ever since.

If we retrofit the winners of the first three series into the categories currently assigned to each judge, this is how well each category has fared in terms of producing winners.

It’s worth mentioning that, outside of the competition, Groups have done much better than anyone else. Also-rans like One Direction, JLS, Jedward and G4 have had much more successful careers than your Leon Jacksons, your Ben Haenows, your Sam Baileys, etc – but they have done pretty badly as a category in the show itself.

It’s also worth mentioning that if we broaden this out like an Olympic Medals chart, to include all of the acts who made it to the final (i.e. the podium places, who came second and third in the competition), Overs are actually better represented in the finals than Girls are, and Groups start to make up a bit of lost ground.

Whichever way you cut it though, it’s clear that your best chance at making the final and going on to win the public vote is being a solo male under the age of 25.

Go figure…

The Ideal Mentor

Ideally, you’d like a new judge to be your mentor as beginners’ luck seems to play quite a significant part in the proceedings. Half of the show’s winners so far have been mentored by a judge in their first year on an X Factor panel (Simon, Dannii, Cheryl, Tulisa, Nicole, Rita).

However, as we’re returning to more of an Original Recipe line-up this year – with every judge on the panel having put in at least a couple of years’ service – there’s no such luck to be had.

It does mean that we can assess them on their previous form though, and this is how that shapes up.

It just so happens that Nicole Scherzinger (top judge) is taking charge of the Boys (top group) – which means she is probably going to be an unstoppable force this year.

Louis Walsh has also gone and taken the Groups, so he’s probably going to get left for dust, leaving Simon and Sharon to duke it out for second and third place.

The Perfect Song

The entire catalogue of recorded pop music is a pretty hefty tome, and sifting through it song by song each week would take far too long. So what shortcuts can you take in order to find the perfect song to endear you to the voting public?



For example, is there anyone in particular – a songwriter, or performer – who plays well with the public? Someone whose songs strike a chord with the voters at home?

Certain high profile artists have had their own week where all the contestants have had to sing one of their songs. Similarly, various other themed weeks (like Divas Week) lend themselves to a very definite handful of performers (Whitney, Celine, Mariah etc) so there is an unavoidable element of manipulation with some of these figures.

However, there do appear to be acts who seem to resonate much, much better with viewers time and time again.

Michael Jackson songs have been picked the most (44 times) with eight of those performances leading to an eventual win.

Whitney Houston songs (or, at least, songs that Whitney Houston has claimed for her own) have been picked 32 times. Seven of those went on to take the crown.

The artist who strikes the best balance of being both effective yet efficient though is Elton John – whose songs have been picked 36 times over the 12 series; eight of which were performed by acts who went on to win.

And who should you avoid?

Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and Amy Winehouse haven’t managed to convince any winners to sing any of their songs (and if it hadn’t been for Little Mix doing multiple Supremes songs, we’d have warned against copying anyone with a beehive up-do entirely).

Pink is a pretty bad choice too. Her song Fuckin’ Perfect (edited to Perfect for the primetime slot) seems to be particularly unlucky – making up three of those seven missteps.

Despite Simon Cowell’s best efforts (giving him his own themed week, and getting him to duet with acts year after year) Rod Stewart seems to be a kiss of death to any hopeful. 13 performances of Rod Stewart tracks over the years have led to just one winner, and that song (The First Cut Is the Deepest) was actually a cover of a Cat Stevens song.

Without doubt though the least successful band to draw inspiration from is U2. U2 tracks have been performed 17 times in the live show finals – and yet they have only been attached to one winner: James Arthur, who performed a version of One.

Everyone else who attempted a U2 song crashed and burned, so potential finalists take note: sing With Or Without You at your own peril.


What about actual songs themselves? Are there any proven smashes? Songs that, by virtue of being so brilliant, cause an audience to vote for you in their droves? Songs that bring down the house every single time?

Kind of…

12 years of doing the same old thing is going to churn up a lot of repeated songs across the board – but there are a handful of tracks which multiple winners have performed.

No song has yet been performed by three different winners, so we’d advise you not to pick anything from this particular table. However, if you’re looking for an act to pilfer from, you could do a lot worse than casting your eye over Leona Lewis’s set list.

She appears to have the best taste of the twelve champions so far, as eight of the songs that she chose to perform (the ones marked in blue) have also been performed by one other winner.

Not only that, but two winners have also chosen to perform Bleeding Love – one of Leona’s own post-X Factor singles – too.

As for songs to avoid, there are a few which seem to cause nothing but trouble. We mentioned already that Pink’s Fuckin’ Perfect has been something of a curse. You’ll Never Walk Alone seems to fall on deaf ears too.

Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca has failed to cut through, despite being picked four times. Neither has Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi. (Livin’, apparently, not big with voters)

Oddly unpopular are Snow Patrol’s two biggest singles – Chasing Cars and Run – which have been performed in the live shows three times apiece, and every time they have caused the performer in question to stumble. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that Leona Lewis covered Run; she started performing that long after she’d won the show…)

But the most performed song which has failed to ever aid a winner? Total Eclipse Of The Heart. Performed five times; precisely zero dice.

The Smartest Theory

Let’s say we want to try something fresh. To pick a song that is every bit as well known as the ones that winners have sung, but one that hasn’t got someone else’s grubby little fingerprints all over it.

What do we know about the types of songs that win? Can we pick out the fundamental qualities that make up a winning song and find something that fits a similar profile?


The vast majority of songs sung by X Factor winners are in a major key. This makes a certain sort of sense. X Factor is a big-budget, primetime, mainstream show. It is Saturday night entertainment. People don’t want miserable whining on a Saturday night. They want feel-good songs.

And while minor keys don’t inherently mean that a song is dour and downbeat (that’s more a trick of tempo – Relight My Fire is in a minor key; Billie Jean is in a minor key – but they’re pacy) if you want to fill an arena on a Saturday night, major keys do seem to be the go-to choice.

(NB: There’s only one winning act who performed more songs in minor keys than he did in major keys and that was – no surprise – James Arthur…)

Point One: We need a song in a major key.


X Factor contestants are allowed to fiddle with a song’s pitch as much as they please (a rule of which they take full advantage) but we’ll look at how they play around with those sorts of arrangements in a second.

First, let’s look at the raw materials they’re working with. What keys were the songs that winners pick originally written in?


Point Two: something in C would seem to fit the bill.


There’s something a little unexpected – and rather interesting – going on with the time signatures of winning contestants.

To put what follows into context, it’s important to say that the time signature 4/4 is king in pop. Almost every pop song you’d care to mention is written in 4/4. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of songs performed by everyone on the X Factor (winners and losers alike) are in 4/4 too.

There are occasional exceptions. Some big hits have been written 3/4 or 6/8, and some genuinely unusual rhythms have found their way into the show too (phrases of 10/4 and 11/4 happen in I Say A Little Prayer; though the phrases of 7/4 that crop up in The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love were unsurprisingly absent from One Direction’s version).

But the thing that unites the majority of acts who go on to eventually win the competition is their tendency to sing at least one song in 12/8.

12/8 is not an especially common time signature, yet it appears time and time again in the winner’s tracklists.

Hallelujah – The biggest selling X Factor single of all time, performed by Alexandra Burke and Ben Haenow. Written in 12/8.

Somebody To Love – Queen songs are performed all the time in the live shows. One of the rare few to cut through was Joe McElderry’s version of Somebody To Love. Which is in 12/8.

It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World – Louisa Johnson’s ‘Song Of The Series’, the performance she reprised in the show’s final which ultimately clinched her the win? 12/8.

Matt Cardle singing Billy Joel’s She’s Always A Woman. Steve Brookstein singing R Kelly’s If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time. Shayne Ward singing The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody. Leona Lewis singing Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing.

All of them in 12/8.

Even the song that Simon Cowell picked for X Factor winners to sing as part of his Haiti relief effort, Everybody Hurts by REM, was in 12/8.

Numerologists may choose to make something of the fact that 8 of the 12 winners so far have sung one song in 12/8; but we’ll make the case for it with this example.

In Series Nine, James Arthur really struggled to pick up any audience support in the first few months, routinely coming sixth in the public vote. That was enough to keep him safe for a while, but sixth place becomes a bit of a problem when the field starts to narrow. Sure enough, in Week Seven, he found himself in the bottom two, facing elimination.

In the sing-off, he decides to perform Alicia Key’s Fallin’ – a song in 12/8. And what happens? Not only is he saved from elimination but from that point on he becomes the public’s favourite, topping the phone vote every single week until he wins the whole thing.

If there is a special secret to X Factor success, it appears to be this.

Point Three: Sing at least one song in 12/8.

How nobody has chosen I Put A Spell On You (a classic of the 12/8 genre) for the show’s regular Halloween Week is completely beyond us, but that song quite doesn’t fulfil all of our criteria.

Ideally a song in the key of C Major, in 12/8, written and performed by Elton John would be the statistically perfect choice – but does such a song exist?

You bet it does. And better yet, no-one has thought to perform it at the live shows yet.

We’ll tell you what it is, but first we need to figure out how best to perform it.

The Optimal Arrangement

The X Factor very rarely allows artists to perform original material. There have been a few examples (most enjoyably It’s Chico Time; least enjoyably James Arthur spitting a few custom bars in the middle of No Doubt’s Don’t Speak) but, generally speaking, contestants are stuck having to sing other artists’ material.

The only way to put your own spin on things then is to fiddle with the song’s arrangement. But how are you best off arranging your song? Should you make adjustments to better suit your individual voice and style? Or are you better off repeating it, note for note, beat for beat?

In order to find out, we compared the contestants’ live show arrangements to the arrangements of the original records. We tallied up, over the course of each series, how many semitones individual contestants chose to pitch their versions of songs up or down, as well as how many beats per minutes they sped up or slowed down, to see which changes work overall.

This is how they fared.

Note: In certain cases it made more sense to compare it to the cover version that the contestant was clearly trying to emulate (Whitney Houston’s version of I Will Always Love You; Mariah Carey’s version of Without You; Michael Bublé’s version of Cry Me A River etc…) but only when it was obvious.


The big outlier, as you can see is James Arthur, who won by performing much slower versions of songs at a lower pitch. As we mentioned previously, they were also predominantly in a minor key, making him by far the most downbeat entrant of the show’s history (so it’s probably no coincidence that his win came at a time when the John Lewis Christmas advert was at the height of its cultural influence).

The most populated quadrant on our matrix however is the faster/lower one. There are very simple reasons for this.

Lower: Because contestants don’t always have the range (or the balls) to belt out exactly the same notes that the world-class professionals hit,  they often pitch their versions down a semitone or two – resulting in a net negative pitch of about -7/-8 semitones over the course of a series.

Faster: Because it’s television and you can’t risk people getting bored, songs get nudged up by a few beats per minute (bpm) to give it a bit more pep. Plus, they can squeeze a little more time to ask the judges for their extremely important opinions if they keep the songs all whipping along.

Across all twelve winners, across all 170+ performances, the average mean pitch shift is -2 semitones and the average mean tempo change is +4.5bpm.

Which means we are ready to reveal the results of our highly technical analysis. In order to create a practically guaranteed X Factor winner this is what needs to happen:

Nicole Scherzinger…

…needs to coerce a young man (16-24)…

…to sing Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why The Call It The Blues (C Major, in 12/8)…

…two semitones lower than the original (so, down to Bb Major)…

…just a lick quicker that Elton recorded it (at a speed of about 85bpm, give or take).

That’s what they’ve been looking for all this time. A 12 year search for the elusive ‘X Factor’ and the answer is… Elton fucking John.

So there you go, Simon. There’s your answer. Now you’ll have plenty of spare time to spend with your family.

No, please. Don’t mention it. It’s our pleasure…