“Catchy” songs are often carefully crafted to have that effect on listeners. Using mathematical formulae and human psychology, earworms are made with a lot of thought and intent behind them.
What makes a song catchy? Is it mere artistic expression or is there a whole lot more to it? Here is an attempt to break down the science of catchy songs and why they have a deep impact on us.
Some days can be perfect, till you get a song stuck in your head and it will not leave you alone. If you find yourself subconsciously humming a hit song that you may not even like that much, you are not alone.
According to an article by the American Psychology Association, titled, ‘Dissecting An Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery.’ the hook can be defined as, “the most salient, easy-to-recall fragment of a piece of music.” To put it simply, it is the part that hooks you in. Sometimes it can be an intro, a melody, or even part of a chorus.
‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple is an example of an instrumental hook. The guitar riff at the beginning of the song is short, repetitive, and simple. But it does not play throughout the song. This makes it catchy but not overbearing.
The A.P.A. article further explains that hooks may be constructed using “rhythmic, melodic, lyrical, timbral, temporal, dynamic, and recording-based features of a tune.”
Not to be confused with a chorus, the hook may appear many times in a song and a snippet of musical information. The chorus, on the other hand, is the essence of a song. It gives us a summary of it.
A common but key element in all hit songs that have ever been made is simplicity. Whether it is lyrical, melodic, or the groove of the song, the less complex it is, the more its chances of becoming a hit. Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, which uses a melodic stomp and clap to establish the main motive behind the song is a great example of simplicity at work. Apart from the guitar solo, the rest of the song has a recurring ‘stomp-stomp-clap-pause’ beat and vocals that can easily be sung along by the listener.
Since the release of the song in the 1970s, the song has been covered and resampled by many artists over the decades, making it one of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time’, according to the prestigious Rolling Stone magazine list.
Sometimes clichés exist for a reason. In the case of a hit song, it is always important to remember that ‘less is more.’
Comedian Bo Burham laments the lack of poetry in love songs of today in his song “Repeat Stuff”, implying that songs today are all the same and the same notions of love have been repeated to death. While he is not completely inaccurate, it is of course meant to be taken as a joke. He, however, uses the same device in his song, and hence the refrain “repeat stuff, repeat stuff” does not vacate your mind.
Paul Barsom, Professor Emeritus of music composition at Penn State argues that repetition makes it difficult to forget a song. A short refrain and the song being played constantly are two different ways in which repetition works. “You could hear a song 25 times a day. If it has a short refrain that everyone can remember, it will stick, even if it’s terrible.”, he says.
One of the reasons why Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’ is still talked about is because the word ‘baby’ makes up the entire chorus. It remained on the Billboard charts for 8 weeks owing to the frequency of airtime it enjoyed across radio stations, music channels. The song, currently, has over 2 billion views on Youtube.
Analysis of every Billboard’s Year End Hot 100 between the years 1960 to 2013 reveals that the most common pair of rhyming words were ‘do’ and ‘you’. It may, perhaps, be the most popular pair in the history of pop music.
Simple words can be used in every context without causing hindrance to the tune of the song. While polysyllabic words such as ‘away/today’, ‘better/together’, or ‘sorrow/tomorrow’ feature heavily in the list, compiled by Slate Magazine, monosyllabic words reign supreme.
Walter Everett, professor of music at the University of Michigan explains that when the singer uses a ‘melisma’, singing different pitches on the same syllable, it creates “a strong perceived bond between the singer and listener, especially in romantic songs.”
Durations and Pitch Intervals
One of the most prolific songwriters of our generation, Max Martin, has written a record number of hits for artists such as The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, The Weeknd, Bon Jovi, and many more. He uses a method called ‘melodic math’. He writes the melody first and then the lyrics to fit the scansion. It is never the other way around.
A line has a set number of syllables and the line that follows it is a mirror image. The chorus appears within the first 50 seconds of the song and there are 3-4 melodic parts in each track. These parts are repeated throughout the song. Lastly, the verse and the chorus have contrasting melodies.
Research conducted by Daniel Müllensiefen and Andrea Halpern in 2014 at the University of London linked the use of small interval size, simple contour, and rhythm to better memorability of a song.
While all human emotions are universal, the tendency for all of us is to gravitate towards the more positive ones such as happiness and joy. Pharrel Williams’ ‘Happy’ became an overnight hit because of its groovy melody and danceable rhythm. Sad songs may evoke deeper feelings but when someone is having a bad day, they are more likely to listen to ‘I Feel Good’ by James Brown over Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself.
Groove is an important part of uptempo songs and the more danceable a song is, the more likely it is to be a hit.
Familiarity and Relatability
Professor Barsom explains that “unfamiliar music doesn’t connect well. It’s harder to own, especially on first listen.” Pachelbel’s ‘Canon In D’ is perhaps historically the most used chord structure, with modern artists continuing to use the ‘D-A-Bm-F#m-G-D-G-A’ chord progression.
Examples of this can be heard in Greenday’s ‘Basket Case’ to ‘Memories’ by Maroon 5 and even ‘Bad Things’ by Machine Gun Kelly. This familiarity helps the listener immediately be able to relate to the melody since chances are, they have heard it before.
Another factor is cultural relatability. While ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys became anthemic for a generation who associated the song with surfing and summer. A broody song like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana best described the angst of the teenagers growing up in the 90s, relying more on a personal connection.
Popularity Of The Artist
While there will always be one-hit-wonders in the world of music, the popularity enjoyed by an artist is an important factor in determining whether their song becomes an earworm or not.
Be it The Beatles in the 1960s and 70s, or the K-pop group BTS in the present day, the more popular an artist is, the more likely their music will be played on the radio and television, streamed on music apps, or YouTube. As we have already seen, repetition is key. The more a song is played, the more it catches on like a wildfire.
Research on earworms by professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati shows that 97-99% of the population is susceptible to earworms at some point in time. What’s more, women were more prone to this ‘cognitive itch’ than men, and musicians more than non-musicians.
If it is a song that you might not particularly enjoy, then the easiest way to get it out of your head is to listen to it in its entirety. That is one of the biggest hacks you will ever need to know!