What’s the origin of music “charts”?

A chart is often used to mean a map or graph of some description, but also the top selling musical hits week by week:

  1. A map showing coastlines, water depths, or other information of use to navigators.
  2. An outline map on which specific information, such as scientific data, can be plotted.
  3. A sheet presenting information in the form of graphs or tables.
  4. See graph.
  5. (often charts) A listing of best-selling recorded music or other items: A hit single that reached number 3 on the charts.

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All these other definitions have a consistent idea of visual representation of data, but the charts as applied to music is different in that it’s a simple one dimensional ranking.

Do they have origins in some particular representation that was more chart-like? Perhaps that got adopted into common usage to create this exception. And possibly related, is there a particular reason it’s often charts?

Answer

Billboard magazine’s use of charts—and its references to them as “The Billboard charts” or “the charts” goes back to the days when it was still called The Billboard magazine. From Bernie Bruns, “The Billboard Music Popularity Charts … What Makes ’em Tick,” in The Billboard (July 14, 1951):

If you’ve ever talked with any of the many recording artists, record manufacturer executives, record distributors, disk jockeys, operators or dealers who visited The Billboard Pop Chart operation, this is the story they would tell you.

The charts previously mentioned [“Best Selling Pop Singles, Country and Western, Rhythm and Blues, Children’s Records and Best Selling Albums,” as well as “Best Selling Pops by Territories charts” and “Songs With Greatest Radio Audiences (ACI),” “Songs with Most TV Performances (RH Tele-Log),” “Best Selling Music,” and :”Honor Roll of Hits” charts] are all based on facts. Information is tabulated from questionnaires and reports based on actual sales, plays on juke boxes, radio, TV performances. The Billboard charts are not opinion polls based upon what is expected to happen. They are essentially a tabulation of facts that have taken place which are on record and can be proved. It is hit-history in the making.

The magazine’s music popularity charts go back at least to January 3, 1942. The Billboard may also be the source of the term pop music, which appears at least as early as the May 31, 1947 issue.

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