Infectious music – How Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and no matter how you tried, you couldn’t get it out? Usually it’s just a snippet, a small piece of the song, maybe the chorus or part of a verse. This is called an earworm or, in academic circles,  involuntary musical imagery. This can be a good thing, as in replaying a song you love in your mind, or it can be a terrible thing, like when that song you hate keeps surfacing and making you want to scream! There are a few reasons songs get stuck in our heads, some of which I’ll discuss below, followed by some ideas about what might make a song catchy that you can use to experiment and maybe, create your own infectious songs.

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There are a few reasons songs get stuck in our heads. First, that song could be stuck in your head because of its association with a powerful event in your life, like your wedding, graduation day, or first kiss,  and thinking of those events or being in similar events brings the song back. Additionally, hearing that song can bring to mind memories of the event itself.

Another reason could include the song’s relationship to a strong emotional event, stressful situation, or trauma. Usually, the relationship happens when the song is playing while the event occurs. Again, in the recurrence of these or similar situations, the song jumps to mind.

In situations like the ones above, it doesn’t matter what song is playing, it get’s stuck, and many times, we are so far from the original event that we don’t even realize that’s why the song keeps popping up!

But what about the songs that are free of these relationships? What about the song you just heard on the radio with the chorus that replays in your head for weeks? What is it about these songs that makes them infectious?

I think it’s important to note before we go any further that simply creating an infectious melody or catchy riff doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re song is great. It’s just a small piece of the compositional process. You need a good chord progression – most of these catchy songs use the same, or at least similar chord progressions. You need relatively good lyrics – silly or nonsensical lyrics could backfire, turning your song into an annoying novelty. Highly negative lyrics could simply turn people off. And I believe its important to add a little artistic continuity to your song, using ideas from the main melody in the bass line or guitar line, integrating vocal rhythms into your drum part, using the meaning of the lyrics to determine the mood of your song, etc. There are many different ways to add more depth to your song which should be the subject of a new blog post!

How do people write that catchy song?

Researchers think they’ve isolated the elements that make a catchy song. According to the researchers, catchy songs share at least these four things (taken from the Wikipedia article).

  1. Longer and detailed musical phrases.
  2. Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook.
  3. Male vocalists
  4. Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort

Further, they concluded that Queen’s “We Are The Champions” is the catchiest song in history despite the fact that there are hundreds of songs that could fit the criteria just as well.

I personally have a few problems with this assessment. Though the authors claim that they can predict whether a song will be catchy with an 80% accuracy, it discounts much of the music recently heard that was immediately catchy! Songs like Call Me Maybe or Wrecking Ball have caught the ear and don’t fit any of the basic criteria.

I’m not entirely sure what the backgrounds of all of these researchers are, and even though they all study music’s effect on the brain, I think they are all psychologists first and perhaps don’t have the deeper understanding of music to really make all the claims they do above. Since the results of this research seem to me somewhat counter intuitive, lets look at what songwriters themselves think.

playingInTheBandWhat do the songwriters who are making the money say?

First, they agree that there needs to be repetition of short, simple ideas. Looking at the research above, this seems like the opposite of what they found. Simple ideas are easier to remember, and if they’re placed over an equally catchy chord progression (see here), people can almost be compelled to sing it.

A simple idea in music could be a tiny motif, and as an example I’ll use Do-Re-Mi (I hoe you all know your do re mis!). In the repetition of this idea, you don’t need it to be exact. For instance, you might raise it one step like this – Do – Re – Mi (rest) Re – Mi – Fa. You’ve repeated an idea that will be easier for your listener to remember but you’ve avoided being boring and monotonous!

Play around with this idea for a little while and then add variations. Play your melody backwards, upside-down, with larger intervals (Do-Re-Mi might become Do-Mi-Sol), slow it down, speed it up, change keys!

Second, it’s important to grab your listener with something unusual, like a curious turn of words, interesting instrumentation, or just a good riff – anything to make your listener curious enough to pay attention so your melody has a better chance of being remembered.

Third, you should build up to the spot where your hook is. Usually this is the chorus, the part of most songs that everyone sings. To build, again, there are a lot of techniques you can use. You could use a simple crescendo, starting softly and becoming louder through your verse until you reach a forte at the chorus. This can be accomplished by starting with one instrument and adding more as you move to the chorus. You could do it also by raising your pitch, starting with a low melody that rises to the highest notes in the song at your hook.

Of course, there is no rule. You could reverse all the suggestions and create something brilliant. Drop all the instruments but the guitar out and sing the hook and octave lower!

As you play with these ideas you need to constantly check yourself. Does your music sound like something else? Does the music sound the way you want it to (this is actually the most important consideration!)?

For more ideas, there are a bunch of songwriter’s resources online like:

On a final note, I mentioned Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” above. It was a ridiculously catchy song that made her a bunch of money… but do you know anyone that doesn’t groan in agony when they hear it now? Catchiness can be a double edged sword. If a song is too catchy, I think people eventually know they’re being psychologically manipulated and react strongly against it!

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