Desert Island Discs

“Desert Island Discs” is the UK’s longest running radio show, still going strong on BBC Radio 4 over 78 years after the first episode on the BBC Forces Programme in January 1942. Each episode, an interviewed “castaway” chooses the eight pieces of music they would take with them to a desert island. They also select their favourite of these tracks, plus a book and a luxury item.

Collecting the data

The BBC website contains details of all episodes of the programme since its start in 1942. Getting the data in a usable form, however, is not straightforward. Firstly, each episode has its own page, so I had to write a program to gather the details from each one. Most (but not all) programmes are listed on the main index page, and most (but not all) are available by following a chain of “next/previous episode” links. Fortunately it was possible to download data from some previous studies, some of which contained links that filled some of the gaps. Finding all of them required a search using several different approaches.

Secondly, not all pages follow the same format. There were changes over time in layout and in how the discs, artists and favourites were listed. The program had to cope with several changes of format over the years, as well as occasional errors and inconsistencies.

Thirdly, the same data can appear in different forms. Some castaways have acquired a “Sir” by the time of their second appearance. Songs and artists can go under a variety of formats (“Handel’s Messiah”, “Messiah by George Frideric Handel”, “Handel: the Messiah”) which require separation into artist/composer and work, and deduplication. Sometimes a performer is mentioned for classical works, in addition to the composer. Parts of works often appear, such as an aria or overture from an opera. In some cases, no composer is mentioned (often with Wagner operas – because we are all supposed to know the creator of Tannhäuser). A songwriter is sometimes mentioned for popular music works. Different castaways may choose the same song performed by different artists. There are also non-musical discs – such as famous speeches, or passages from Shakespeare.

Solving the deduplication problem was difficult. Separating the title from the artist/composer could be achieved in most cases by searching for the word “by”, or a colon or hyphen. With titles and artists I used an approach comparing the number of words in common. Discs with at least two words in common for both the title and the artist were regarded as the same (with one or two exceptions that were adjusted manually). So all partial works were categorised with the main work (e.g. the overture and arias are grouped with the whole opera), and the same song by different artists were treated as separate discs.

This process is not perfect. It will have wrongly grouped together some songs that have similar titles. It will have overlooked some performers who are not always listed alongside the main artist. And it will have failed to link some discs where the descriptions do not have sufficient words in common. Overall, though, it probably catches most cases.

The Data

The data covers a period from January 1942 to January 2020 (when I gathered it). Luxuries and books were introduced in 1952, and the favourite disc from 1959, although some of the early data for these is patchy. In total there were 3,225 episodes covering 2,942 castaways (a few have been on more than once). They chose 25,779 discs in total,1 consisting of 13,280 different tracks (deduplicated as described above) by 5,322 artists/composers.

Top Tracks and Artists

The most chosen piece of music was Handel’s Messiah, selected by 119 castaways. Mozart was second and third with The Marriage of Figaro (111 castaways) and The Magic Flute (93); then Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (83), and Bach’s St Matthew Passion (82), followed by an unsurprising list of other well known classical works. They are all large-scale (orchestral, choral or operatic) until Schubert’s String Quintet in C at 11th place (73 castaways), then Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque at 28th (47). The first non-classical disc is Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien in 27th place (48), some way ahead of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World (in joint 73rd place, with 28 castaways).

Although he wrote the most popular piece, Handel was only the 8th most popular composer, the leaders being Mozart (993 discs chosen), Beethoven (837) and Bach (805), some way ahead of Schubert (406) and Verdi (371). The Beatles were the most popular non-classical artist (296 discs, in 9th place overall), followed by Frank Sinatra (266, in 11th place), Louis Armstrong (142, 24th), Ella Fitzgerald and Noël Coward (both with 130, in joint 25th).

Favourite tracks

Since 1959, castaways have been asked which of their eight tracks would be their first choice. 25% of the time, it is the final track of their eight, and 15% of the time it is the first one (with a 10% chance for each of the others).

The most common favourite discs are Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (each chosen by 32 castaways), followed by Messiah, Bach’s Mass in B minor, and Schubert’s String Quintet. The first non-classical favourite is Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World (18th place, 12 castaways).

Despite not being among the top five favourite tracks, Beethoven has the most favourites to his name (216), followed by Mozart (198), Bach (197), Schubert (63) and Elgar (60). Sinatra is in 13th place (28), and The Beatles in 15th (25).

Changes over time

Things have changed quite a lot over time. Here, for example, are the most chosen discs by decade:

  • 1940s: Debussy – Suite Bergamasque
  • 1950s: Puccini – La Bohème
  • 1960s: Handel – Messiah
  • 1970s: Beethoven – Symphony No.9 “Choral”
  • 1980s: Mozart – The Magic Flute
  • 1990s: Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro
  • 2000s: Mozart – Requiem
  • 2010s: Louis Armstrong – Wonderful World
Louis Armstrong

It is only in the 2010s that any non-classical piece has been among the top ten discs. As well as Wonderful World, the top ten of the last decade also includes Je ne regrette rien, Aretha Franklin’s Respect, Frank Sinatra’s Fly me to the moon, and Morecambe & Wise singing Bring me Sunshine.

Among castaways’ favourite discs, the trends are similar, although the numbers are quite small, so any conclusions have limited statistical significance. However, it is worth mentioning that Wonderful World is the most common favourite disc of the last decade.

There have been less dramatic shifts in the most popular artists and composers. Here are the top three (in descending order) for each decade:

  • 1940s: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart
  • 1950s: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart
  • 1960s: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven
  • 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach
  • 2010s: Mozart, Bach, The Beatles

Half of the top ten artists over the last decade are in popular music – The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Bob Marley – as are eight of the next ten – including four women: Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell.

Among the composers of castaways’ favourite discs, Beethoven was top in the 1960s and 1970s, Mozart took over for the next two decades, Bach was the leader in the 2000s, and Beethoven returned to the top in the 2010s.

The lack of popular music among the most common choices might be due to a number of factors. For example, there could be a tendency to choose well-known classical pieces but more esoteric, yet personally significant, popular music tracks. Most of the guests are invited on the show only after they have become successful, so tend to be older than average, and their popular music tastes, even today, are still largely rooted in the 1960s and 1970s. If “Desert Island Discs” is still running in fifty years time, I suspect there will be much more popular music than we have seen so far.

Gender differences

I was able to identify the gender of most of the castaways using the gender package in R (which uses first names), as well as from clues in titles such as “Sir” or “Baroness”. Most of the others could be easily looked up online. Just over 30% of episodes feature a female castaway. However, this has changed over time: the proportion of female castaways fell from about one third in the 1940s and 50s, to about 28% in the following half-century, but rose to about 45% in the 2010s.

The following chart shows the 50 most commonly chosen works, sorted by the extent to which they are preferred by female or male castaways, with the most “female” at the top and the most “male” at the bottom.2

Handel’s Messiah, the overall leader, is liked evenly by men and women. However, men tend to prefer the Mozart operas, Schubert’s String Quintet, and Bach’s B minor Mass, whereas women prefer Der Rosenkavalier, Tristan and Isolde, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto.

The following chart shows the same analysis for the top 50 artists or composers:

Women prefer Ella Fitzgerald, Debussy and Puccini, whereas men are more drawn to Elgar, Mahler and Stravinsky. Note that third from bottom of this list is “The Band”, which is an artefact of the deduplication process, consisting of wrongly merged entries along the lines of “The Band of [the Coldstream Guards, etc]”.

We can perform a similar analysis for castaways’ favourite discs:

There are fewer of these as I have only used those chosen ten or more times. Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World seems to owe its recent success mainly to female castaways, so is probably at least partly due to the higher proportion of female castaways in the last 10 years.

Here is the same analysis for the top artists/composers of the favourite discs:

This is broadly consistent with the overall artist preferences, although there are one or two interesting differences. For example, The Beatles are more likely to appear on men’s lists of eight discs, but women are more likely to have one of their records as their favourite. Edith Piaf shows the opposite trend.

Connections

This data forms a ‘bipartite graph’ – a set of links between a group of castaways and a group of discs. Using this data we can define two related networks – a castaway network, where two castaways are joined if they have a disc in common, and a disc network, where two discs are linked if they are chosen by the same castaway. Thinking about the data in this way allows us to answer questions such as which discs (or artists) tend to get chosen together?

The most common pairing of discs turns out to be Rachmaninov’s Suite No.2 for two pianos, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4, which have appeared together in the lists of 17 castaways. In second place, with 11 joint appearances, are Handel’s Recorder Sonata Op.1 No.11 and Do Re Mi by Woody Guthrie.

I’m not sure that this really tells us very much, but the analysis by artists/composers is perhaps more enlightening. Here is a dendrogram showing the most common artist pairings:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, castaways who choose Mozart also tend to choose Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and, to a lesser extent, Verdi. Note that the scale has been transformed with a square root in order to avoid it being too dominated by these composers. Elsewhere, we see that Brahms, Elgar and Strauss often go together, as do Handel and Britten, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Debussy, or The Beatles and Bob Dylan. There are no great surprises here, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Using the castaway network, we can similarly investigate the common ground between castaways. The clear leaders here are John Mills and Arthur Askey. Arthur Askey was a castaway four times between 1942 and 1980, and John Mills three times between 1951 and 2000. Twelve discs were chosen by both of them.

Books and Luxuries

Finally, let’s have a look at castaways’ choices of books and luxury items to take with them to the desert island. These are tricky to analyse as they are described in free format, and need some deduplication.

The books can be roughly deduplicated in a similar way to the discs. The most commonly requested specific book is Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (43 castaways), followed by Tolstoy’s War and Peace (41), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (16), and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Among specific authors, women were particularly likely to ask for Jane Austen or Tolkien, with men more likely to favour Dickens or P G Wodehouse. However, the most common book choices were less specific. 191 castaways mentioned something along the lines of a poetry anthology, 97 asked for an encyclopedia, and 26 wanted a survival manual.3

Among luxuries, the most common was paper or writing materials, requested by 244 castaways (especially popular with women). Second was a piano (179), followed by a guitar (69), both of which were more common among men. 61 castaways asked for a bed. Golf clubs, radio receivers and various forms of alcohol were requested by lots of male castaways but by very few women.


This is a large and messy dataset of which I feel I have only scratched the surface. It certainly rewards careful cleaning and deduplication, and there is more that could be done to improve the quality of the data, given more time and effort. It would also be interesting to combine this with other data, such as the characteristics of castaways (nationality, occupation, age, etc), and richer information about the music (e.g. genre, style or period), or the performers and composers (gender, nationality, period, etc). The analysis of the bipartite graph and its derived “castaway” and “disc” networks is also certainly a rich area for further research.

Cite this article as: Gustar, A.J. 'Desert Island Discs' in Statistics in Historical Musicology, 18th April 2020, https://www.musichistorystats.com/desert-island-discs/.
  1. This should have been eight times 3,225, or 25,800, but for various reasons the data collection process seems to have dropped a few. At least one programme was a “best of” compilation, for example.
  2. The “female proportion” here is calculated as the proportion of female castaways choosing each disc, divided by (the proportion of females PLUS the proportion of males choosing it). This is to take account of the smaller proportion of female castaways overall.
  3. Castaways are automatically provided with the Bible (or suitable alternative) and the complete works of Shakespeare.

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