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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Music isn’t changing…

It’s just being explored… and much like the Earth, there isn’t much left to explore. After the work of the mid to late 20th century, nearly all harmonic combinations were pretty much exhausted. Then came the rhythmic exploration. What’s left?

There are still composers across all genres doing great innovative things. What we see becoming popular across most genres, however, is pretty much just old ideas with some new orchestration slapped on and no innovation at all.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad to return to old ideas. In the evolution of Rock we see a direct development from the blues, then an infusion of folk, classical orchestration, back to the blues, etc… and this is just in the first 10 or so years. This is how music has always evolved and become something new. But, as I said above, all we see now is the plunder of old ideas.

Although there isn’t much new coming from most of the “popular” artists, this isn’t an accurate reflection of the human spirit. Rather, it’s the result of an industry that’s in panic about losing everything because all of their old models have been destroyed by new technology. They’re only concerned now with pumping out a hit song that will make at least a million bucks.

And the artists they’ve chosen to work with are either pretty and pliable people, or diligent researchers of what has made songs hits in the past. They either smile and sing whatever is handed to them or dissect old hits, extracting the elements they need to construct a new one. Facade, sterile and surgical… no art allowed.

If you look deeply past all of this, all the fireworks that explode once, blinding you for a while, but then disappearing forever, you find the underground. The fertile ground where new ideas actually take shape.

Sites like Made Loud help you to navigate this new and vast terrain. There are others. Just search indie or underground or DIY and the genre of music you love the most. Unfortunately, as powerful as the internet is, there is so much garbage to wade through but there’s also a lot of gold buried there! You’ll find it well worth it in the end!

The 10 Most Used Chord Progressions in Pop and Rock and Roll

The following is a list of ten of the most used chord progressions in music today. Some are classic and have been used hundreds of times sometimes in combination with each other or with slight alteration to make things a bit more interesting. If you learn these progressions and are able to pick them out of a song by ear, you should be able to play (or at least understand) nearly any song!

If you’re a songwriter, knowing these progressions will help you avoid writing the same song multiple times or copying your heroes’ music. These chord progressions are the musical archetypes.

For those of you that know music theory, I’m providing the roman numerals. For those of you that don’t, I’ll give you the progressions in the key of G in parenthesis.

Number one is the Don’t Stop Believing Progression, I – V – vi – IV (G – D – Em – C). The Axis of Awesome did a great bit about this one in which they play 40 songs in a row that all have the same progression including, No Woman No Cry, Let It Be, I’m Yours, etc… and over the past few years, that list has become a lot longer!

The second is the 50’s Progression, I – vi – IV – V (G – Em – C – D). I call it this because it was hugely popular in the 50’s and 60’s and is still used today. Notably used recently by Justin Bieber for “Baby” (Justin was like baby baby baby oh… what a pity) and Sean Kingston for “Beautiful Girls,” though Kingston really just ripped Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” off.

The third is the Canon, I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V (G – D – Em – Bm – C – G – C – D). It was the chord progression used by Pachelbel for his Canon in D (not G as above). The piece, forgotten soon after it was written (around 1694), was rediscovered in the early 20th century and has influenced a number of songwriters. It is, however, simply an extension of the basic I – IV – V – I progression that was used by nearly every composer for hundreds of years up to about 100 years ago.

The fourth is the Blues Progression, I – I – I – I – IV – IV – I – I – V – V – I – I (G – G – G – G – C – C – G – G – D – D – G – G). This is the way Chuck Berry played it in Johnny B Goode though the last 4 chords are often V – VI – I – V (D – C – G – D). There are 12 chords because it follows the standard 12-bar blues progression. In this progression it’s common to switch freely between major and minor. This progression has been used in thousands of songs outside of the blues from Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love to Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason and beyond.

The fifth is the Smoke on the Water Progression, ii – IV – V (am – C – D). It’s usually used as part of a larger progression and was used in Purple Haze, Iron Man, House of the Rising Sun, Stepping Stone, etc…

The sixth is the Good Love Progression, I – IV – V – IV (G – C – D – C). This was used in Wild Thing, La Bamba, and Good Love, etc.

The Seventh is the Sweet Home Progression… (god, how I hate Sweet Home Alabama!) V – IV – I (D – C – G). Can’t Explain, Sweet Child of Mine.

The Eighth is a rearrangement of the Don’t Stop Believing progression vi – IV – I – V (em – C – G – D). I’m not sure what to call this one. The song that always gets stuck in my head with this one is The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Snow, though I know Taylor Swift uses it in at least three songs (as well as most of the other progressions above…), Green Day used it in Holiday, and The Cranberries used it in Zombie, just to name a few.

The ninth is the stereotypical Descending Flamenco Progression  vi – V – IV – III (em – D – C – B (not Bm!)). This one has been used in songs from California Dreamin to Stray Cat Strut… I’m sure you can think of a few more! A variation on this is vi – V – VI – V (em – D – C – D) which arguably may be more popular today…

And the tenth that I see is the As My Guitar Gently Weeps Progression. This one straddles two keys and it’s basic representation is ii – I – V6 – bVII (- VI) (am – G – D/f# – F (- E)). It looks like a variation on the Descending Flamenco Progression and is presented with slight variations by everyone that uses it. The Beatles actually substituted an am7/G  for the G chord and left out the E. Chicago, in 25 or 6 to 4 focused on the root notes in the bass -> A – G – F# – F – E. Led Zepplin, Green Day, and Neil Young all offered their variations as well.

These progressions are not the end of music. They’re used a lot but they’re not your only options! If you look on the ultimate guitar archive you’ll see them everywhere, but most songwriters use them in combination with other progressions or with variation, creating something new using old building blocks. Please don’t think of this list as a set of rules! Just information to enhance your own understanding of the way music works.

Check out my teaching website at Thorne’s Guitar

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