Whether it’s the latest pop sensation or a classic rock anthem, we’ve all been there. What is it that makes a song so compelling that you find yourself humming it hours, or even days, later?
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.
What makes a catchy melody?
Let’s get one thing straight first: what is catchiness anyway? Cognitively speaking, catchiness refers to the degree to which a melody, rhythm, or musical fragment is memorable over a period of time after the song has stopped playing.
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 their 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.
It’s all about that hook
While Mullensiefen and Pawley focused more on the audio engineering and sing-a-long side of catchy pop songs, other researchers have dissected the composition aspects of earworms.
Paul Barsom, Professor Emeritus of music composition at Penn State, argues that the main elements that a catchy needs to tick are:
- The hook. In music, a “hook” refers to a memorable and catchy musical or lyrical element that grabs the listener’s attention and becomes the most memorable part of a song. It’s often a short phrase or melody that is repeated throughout the song, serving as a focal point and creating a sense of anticipation or recognition for the listener. Hooks can be found in various forms, such as a catchy guitar riff, a memorable vocal melody, a distinctive chord progression, or a memorable lyrical phrase.
- Repetition. In Justin Bieber’s Billboard 100 top song ‘Baby’, the chorus is made up entirely of the word baby repeated over and over again with some ‘ooohs’ sprinkled through. It’s damn annoying but also enhances the song’s catchiness potential. You might hate it, but the song’s three billion views on YouTube serve as a testament to this technique’s effectiveness.
Repetition works by capitalizing on our brain’s love for patterns. When we encounter a repeated melody or rhythm, our brains recognize the pattern and predict its return. This anticipation creates a sense of pleasure and satisfaction when our prediction comes true.
- Rhythm. A catchy song has memorable lyrics and a good hook, but it’s equally important for the song’s rhythm to match. If you’re not bopping your head to a song is it even worth your time? There’s a concept in music theory known as “syncopation.” This refers to rhythms that emphasize unexpected beats. Syncopation creates a level of unpredictability, a break from the expected pattern, that our brains find intriguing.
- Simplicity and familiarity. Simple songs that are not overburdened with a lot of instruments and complicated modulations are easier to parse by the brain and are hence more likely to stick in your head. On this note, the listener’s familiarity with a certain genre also plays a major role. It’s easier to love a new pop rock tune if you’ve listened to a lot of punk rock before, but a Tchaikovsky classical piece might prove to be undigestible if you’re not familiar with this kind of music.
- Relatable lyrics. Consider how often catchy songs reflect universal themes—love, loss, hope, desire. These themes resonate because they touch on shared human experiences. So, the next time you find yourself singing along to a love ballad or a heartbreak anthem, remember: it’s not just the melody that’s got you hooked. The lyrics are working their magic, too.
When you listen to music, your brain is performing an intricate dance. Multiple areas light up, each contributing to your perception of the melody. Two significant areas are the auditory cortex, which processes the sounds, and the cerebellum, involved in rhythm and timing.
What happens when these brain areas encounter a catchy tune? They’re on high alert. The music aligns with our internal rhythm and pattern-recognizing machinery. These patterns aren’t just pleasing to the ear; they tap into deep-seated cognitive processes, triggering memories, emotions, and even physical responses.
A catchy song isn’t just a random collection of sounds. It’s a carefully crafted blend of melody, rhythm, and lyrics designed to resonate with us on a deep, emotional level. So, the next time you find yourself humming a catchy tune, take a moment to appreciate the sweet science behind it. And don’t worry if you can’t get it out of your head—that’s just a sign that the songwriters did their job well.