Exploring Music's Complexities

What is Top 40?

What does Top 40 mean ?

Individuals associated with the music world may choose the term “Top 40” countdown to label mainstream pop music played on the radio.  The term first appeared in the early 1950s (1) and contained a list of frequently aired songs.   It was during this period that this new approach was designed to introduce new releases on the radio.  Todd Storz, a radio broadcaster, designed the format at his radio station in Omaha, Nebraska (2).  Data for the format included the number of times a record was played on jukeboxes.

Finding the effort commercially sound he formed a company called Storz Broadcasting Company and added data from record stores to determine which singles were hot. By the mid 50s he had acquired additional stations and coined the term “top 40” to describe this radio format.

American Top 40

It was during this period that the music world was transitioning from ten-inch 78 rpm format to the seven-inch vinyl 45 rpm format which was introduced in 1949.  Once it was out selling the 78 rpms the list became a survey of the popularity of 45 rpm singes and their airplay on the radio. Later nationally syndicated radio shows such as American Top 40, featured a countdown of the 40 highest ranked songs on a particular music or entertainment publication.

On July 4, 1970 American Top 40, featured a countdown of the 40 highest ranked songs on a particular music or entertainment publication. Although publications often listed more than 40 charted hits, such as the Billboard Hot 100, time constraints allowed for the airing of only 40 songs; hence, the term “top 40” gradually became part of the vernacular associated with popular music (3).

The 1970s FM ‘s radio format provided an opportunity to produce widely varied programming, causing use of the old format to decline.  It made a strong reappearance when it came back as Contemporary Hits Radio.  This format consists of hit songs interspersed with news and promotion of the radio station.

Over time different recording formats have competed with the 45-rpm vinyl record. They include cassette singles, CD singles, digital downloads and streaming. Many music charts changed their eligibility rules to incorporate some, or all, of these. Since the early 1990s the term is used to represent mainstream music in general. Some disc jockeys presenting Top 40 and similar format programs have been implicated in various payola scandals.


  1.   Fong-Torres, Ben (1998). Dick Fatherly Knows Best (from The Hits Just Keep Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio). Miller Freeman Books. ISBN 0-87930-547-9. Retrieved 28 August 2020

2.  What Does Top 40 Mean? https://www.liveabout.com/what-does-top-mean-324698

3  Top 40.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_40

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