Probing Question: What makes a song catchy?

Jun 08, 2006

A catchy tune isn't always a good thing. If it contains an infectious chorus, even a song you dislike might refuse to leave your head. ("Achy Breaky Heart," anyone?) The choice of descriptors is not lost on Keith Duffy, a professor of rhetoric and composition at Penn State Schuylkill and a musician on the side. "Oddly enough," Duffy said, "this same rhetoric also describes communicable diseases."

There may be cognitive reasons behind a tune's appeal, he suggested. Referring to a study done at Dartmouth College last year, Duffy explained that "MRIs show that a catchy song makes the auditory part of the brain 'itch,' and the only way the itch can be scratched is by listening to the song."

"Test subjects were played snippets of familiar songs that had segments removed. Participants said their brains filled in the gaps -- in fact, they 'heard' the removed parts of the songs in their heads," Duffy continued. "This was especially true in songs that had lyrics -- as well as songs which evoked strong visual memories in participants."

If mentally repeating a song is the brain "scratching," Paul Barsom wants to pin down exactly what causes that initial "itch."

"It's a pretty intangible thing," said Barsom, professor of music theory and composition at Penn State. "If it wasn't, then everybody would be writing catchy songs."

Certain kinds of musical gestures or combinations, he added, seem to plug readily into our memory, like molecules coming together in a chemical reaction.

"'We will, we will, rock you' is just easy to remember."

Barsom listed several factors that might cause a song to be catchy.

"A certain familiarity -- similarity to music one already knows -- can play a role," he explained. "Unfamiliar music doesn't connect well. It's harder to own, especially on first listen."

Picture a teen with an affinity for punk rock listening to his or her grandfather's Tchaikovsky collection -- or vice versa.

Taking familiarity a step further, Barsom added that a cultural connection between music and listener can make a tune more memorable. To listeners of a certain generation, for example, the music of the Beach Boys opened up a whole new world of summer and surfing.

"Their connection to their audience made the music more appealing."

Repetition also can make a song hard to forget in two ways, Barsom said.

"If you have a hook (a short catchy phrase or passage) in the song, and if that hook is repeated often, that could do it. You might only remember five seconds of the song -- but sometimes that's enough."

In addition, he noted, repeated radio play could force a song to become catchy.

"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."

Lastly, a particularly appealing performance of the song may be enough to make it stick in your head.

"Sometimes there's a certain electric thing that really carries a mediocre song, just the manner in which it is played. But who could possibly figure out what that is?"

Barsom concluded that there is no definite blueprint for constructing a catchy song. At best, most songwriters can only try out different melodies until one of them sounds like a keeper, a method with which musician Duffy can identify.

"I know when I am composing and recording music, certain chord or note progressions will evoke an emotion in me, in almost a primordial way. When this happens, I am compelled to explore that relationship further," he said.

For Duffy and Barsom, it seems, finding a formula for "catchiness" is futile; instead, recognition is the key. If it's going to spread and stick, a tune must first infect the songwriter.

Source: By Joe Anuta, Research/Penn State

Explore further: What I learned from debating science with trolls

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA sees Depression 12-E become Tropical Storm Lowell

41 minutes ago

In less than 24 hours after Tropical Depression 12-E was born in the eastern Pacific Ocean it strengthened into Tropical Storm Lowell. NOAA's GOES-West and NASA's Aqua satellite captured infrared images of ...

Recommended for you

When it comes to how pizza looks, cheese matters

7 hours ago

Most consumers have an idea what they want their pizza slice to look like. Golden cheese with that dark toasted-cheese color scattered in distinct blistery patches across the surface with a bit of oil glistening in the valleys. ...

Freedom and responsibility of science

13 hours ago

Yesterday, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Leopoldina National Academy of Sciences presented their recommendations for "The Freedom and Responsibility of Science" in Berlin. Both research organizations appeal ...

What I learned from debating science with trolls

Aug 20, 2014

I often like to discuss science online and I'm also rather partial to topics that promote lively discussion, such as climate change, crime statistics and (perhaps surprisingly) the big bang. This inevitably ...

Activists urge EU to scrap science advisor job

Aug 19, 2014

Nine major charities urged the European Commission on Tuesday to scrap a science advisor position it says puts too much power over sensitive policy into the hands of one person.

User comments : 0