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: Best of Last Week—Confirmed Earth-sized planet, testing twin paradox w/o a spaceship and news we all peak at 24

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Virgin Media and Universal launch music service

Jun 15, 2009

(AP) -- Virgin Media, the cable TV operator owned by entrepreneur Richard Branson, launched a new kind of music download subscription service Monday with Universal, the world's largest music company.

YouTube blocks premium music videos in Britain

Mar 09, 2009

YouTube on Monday said it is blocking certain copyrighted music videos in Britain until it overcomes an impasse in a licensing deal with the Performing Rights Society for Music (PRS).

Recommended for you

Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

Apr 16, 2014

Science has often come to the rescue when it comes to the world's big problems, be it the Green Revolution that helped avoid mass starvation or the small pox vaccine that eradicated the disease. There is ...

Japan stem cell body splashes cash on luxury furniture

Apr 14, 2014

A publicly-funded research institute in Japan, already embattled after accusing one of its own stem cell scientists of faking data, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on designer Italian furniture, reportedly to use up ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Teachers' scare tactics may lead to lower exam scores

As the school year winds down and final exams loom, teachers may want to avoid reminding students of the bad consequences of failing a test because doing so could lead to lower scores, according to new research published ...

Hyperbolic homogeneous polynomials, oh my!

Cutting-edge mathematics today, at least to the uninitiated, often sounds as if it bears no relation to the arithmetic we all learned in grade school. What do topology and combinatorics and n-dimensional ...

Poll: Big Bang a big question for most Americans

Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 ...