Psychology, Science, Studies

What makes a song ‘catchy’ – science explains

Musicologist Dr. Alison Pawley and psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen out at the University of London have dabbled into the difficult task of scientifically determining what makes people sing along to certain tunes. Their research has lead them to claim that there are various factors that make a song catchy, and in the process have compiled a list of the UK’s top 10 sing-along songs.

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.

“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

The researchers conclusion was that there are four traits that make a song catchy:

  1. Longer and detailed musical phrases. The breath a vocalist takes as they sing a line is crucial to creating a sing-along-able tune. The longer a vocal in one breath, the more likely we are to sing along.

    Freddie Mercury possessed all the necessary frontman skills to write and perform a "catchy" song. More like momentus, if you ask me.

  2. Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook. The more sounds there are, the more infectious a song becomes. Combining longer musical phrases and a hook over three different pitches was found to be key to sing-along success.
  3. Male vocalists. Singing along to a song may be a subconscious war cry, tapping into an inherent tribal part of our consciousness. Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs.
  4. Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort. This indicates high energy and purpose, particularly when combined with a smaller vocal range (Freddie Mercury of Queen and Jon Bon Jovi).

The determine these factors, the researchers went under-cover and observed over 1100 instances of people singing along in the real-life context of pubs and clubs across northern England, counting how many people sang along to each song. Then, after performing an extensive musical analysis and correlating with contextual variables gathered using various data mining techniques, they were able to rank a list of sing-a-long classics. Here’s how the top 10 UK sing-a-long looks like:

1. ‘We are the Champions’, Queen (1977)
2. ‘Y.M.C.A’, The Village People (1978)
3. ‘Fat Lip’, Sum 41 (2001)
4. ‘The Final Countdown’, Europe (1986)
5. ‘Monster’, The Automatic (2006)
6. ‘Ruby’, The Kaiser Chiefs (2007)
7. ‘I’m Always Here’, Jimi Jamison (1996)
8. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, Van Morrison (1967)
9. ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, Wheatus (2000)
10. ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, Bon Jovi (1986)

I have my serious doubts about the legitimacy of such a list. It’s controversial, not telling that, like any kind of top 10 list trying to rank songs, but either way I can appreciate the hard work the researchers put in for the study. It tries to show how science and engineering fundamentals are linked together and can describe all sorts of patterns that influence our lives, including music. Again, music is terribly subjective by nature, and I’m certain a lot of people will jump at this flaming.

via

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  • http://twitter.com/tony4x Tony

    What a load of BS

  • http://twitter.com/kobefroo kobe frome

    The legitimacy of this list only has to answer to the parameters of the study: statistical attributes of music that is used in sing-along settings of everyday life in northern England. The list changes per different regions around the world. If you run every popular song in existence through the 4 criteria, obviously you can find stronger contenders to make up a list less controversial or to personal liking. But the assumption of the study remains: a catchy song is what’s useful to the cultural life in today’s northern England (i.e. influenced by business and miscellaneous cultural factors outside the science of music) – not some absolute “value” they’re digging up in annals of pop music history.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arttu-Manninen/100001101486638 Arttu Manninen

    After the Veet/Clarion Communications case (http://www.badscience.net/2007/09/clarion-communications-respond-on-the-rigged-jessica-alba-wiggle/ ) I have been pretty suspicious on this kind of studies.

  • RealityCheck

    Applying ‘science’ to the ‘art’ of music is completely ridiculous!

    Scientists just can’t cope with the fact that the catchiness of music is an absolute intangible which cannot be described by scientific analysis. Sure musical theory has a mathematical base, but many extremely successful musicians can’t even read music. Composers use their brains in a way that ‘brainy’ scientists can’t understand and this bothers them because musicians are cleverer than they are in this aspect.

    The proof is clear – an 18 year old kid can write a hit song using an ‘intangible’ process and become a chart success.  A scientist needs to study for years in order to be successful. Hence – science is a learned process and music is a natural gift. Also the number of FAILED bands is further evidence that not everyone has that gift.

    We cannot break down music into “maths, science, engineering and technology”. If it was that easy the likes of Sony, Universal, EMI etc would not be paying millions to dope-smoking bohemian artists to write hit records. They would have commissioned “musicologists” to write music based on scientific formulae. What a joke!

  • Ferroxian

    Wha…? The researcher never heard of ‘Motown’, The Temptations, the Supremes, Berry Gordy, WILSON PICKETT, JANIS JOPLIN, excuse me…I was starting to get angry, please forgive…send this person to my office…at once!

  • Shannonjamesmcdonald

    Well, actually… the reason people can write catchy music without breaking it down into science and knowing anything about music theory is because those people instinctively write what they feel is pleasurable to them and sticks to their minds… in effect creates a catchy tune… artists who only write extremely complex music don’t normally become very known or famous… people with a deep interest in music will have more of a chance finding them rather than the general public… ever heard of Protest The Hero? Likely not… science does not go against art, science is simply the human attempt to understand the unknown using trial and error and alot of processes to gain factual information… big record labels do spend millions on musicologists and other music experts, this is the reason when an artists becomes signed to a major label, their style changes and they become much more ”poppy” for that time untill their musical talent isn’t needed or becomes out of date, there is alot to know about science and art but the more one knows the more one understands they go hand in hand…

  • http://www.facebook.com/MattyBYo Matthew Smith

    Music is decoded in the brain, how can it not be very heavily dependent on science? All art is dependent on science.

  • Si

    Once upon a time Art and Science were the same thing, Art is a way of understanding the world as much as it is a way of expression. Ask Leonardo Da Vinci