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 led 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:
- Longer and more 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.
- A 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.
- 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.
- 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 undercover and observed over 1,100 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 extensive musical analysis and correlating with contextual variables gathered using various data mining techniques, scientists were able to rank a list of sing-a-long classics.
Here’s what 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)
This list is bound to be controversial, like any kind of top 10 list trying to rank songs. Either way, I can appreciate the hard work the researchers put into their study.
It tries to show how science and audio engineering fundamentals are linked together and can describe all sorts of patterns that influence our lives, including music.