What makes music catchy?

Over the last while I’ve been thinking about the music that’s been in my head, and I’m trying to understand what it is about the music that makes it catchy. Recently it seems to be mostly the Lord of the Rings theme and the jingle from the McDonald’s ‘i’m lovin’ it™’ commercials.

In the past, I’ve noticed that the music I find myself humming/listening to in my mind is very different than the music I actually listen to. The most common seem to be either political songs (especially totalitarian political songs), music from movies and musicals, and children’s music I haven’t heard in fifteen years. Seasonal music is common too, and not only in November and December when every store and radio station is playing it.

Aside from these broad categories, all that I can think of is two general characteristics: the music tends to have lyrics, and it tends to be things I hear often or have sung myself. What I’d really like to know is if there’s anything specific that makes music catchy. Considering that advertising music and totalitarian/communist propaganda music seems to be the most catchy, is it possible to deliberately compose music so it’ll stay in peoples’ heads?

Yeah, and the fact that it’s played ad nauseum, ad infinitum helps alot too. Repeated exposure to something tends to break down one’s resistance. Those things tend to be relentlessly shrill and simple, so it’s hard for it not too invade your brain.

As far as music compostions go, there are certain chords which are more pleasing to the ear than others. And i beleive the ear is always waiting to hear the keynote at the end of a melody. These are psychoacoustic phenomenon which someone can certainly explain better than I.

Well, this seems like much more of a Great Debate to me, but I’ll take a stab at a couple of your points.

Trust me, not everyone feels this way.

Considering all the times I’ve had really crappy music stuck in my head, I’d say no. Catchiness is in the ear of the beholder.

Avoiding dissonance is always a good thing.

BobT, listen to Stravinsky much? Or Hindemith? Dissonance is just as catchy as consonance.

The question is about catchiness, which doesn’t discriminate between good and bad. Quality is not the issue here.

in a thread i made a while ago, someone said that in order to get a song out of your head you sometimes have to either go to the end of the tune or make up an ending. i’ve noticed alot of jingles fade out; so they don’t have an ending. therefore, the above strategy wouldn’t work, unless of course you make up an ending which i don’t like to have to do.

Yeah, I always get a song stuck in my head all day, then when I get in my car I turn it on to find that that song is playing - I had stopped listening to it earlier in the day and stopped halfway through, so it was almost like my mind get singing the song as a way to complete it.

Another thing to consider, is that there tends to be a complicated pattern in songs. Obviously musicians don’t just pick notes at random, so maybe it’s the pattern that gets stuck in our head.

It’s the bass, man. Frequently, the bass is holding down a very repetitious part, and that repetition is what sticks in your head. Think of all the pop songs that are instantly identifiable by the bass line. Another One Bites The Dust, Superfreak, Come Together, etc.

But repetition in general will do it, too.

Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on…

Earworms…Those tunes, or parts of tunes, that get stuck in your head are called earworms.

Wasn’t there an article on BBCi (or perhaps even CNN online) a few months ago about this? IIRC, scientists compared it to an “itch you wish you could scratch.” It annoys you slightly.

I wish I could remember the source so I could search… I’m going to try BBC.

Back in a jiff!

No, no, no – it’s called a hook. A repeated rhythmic or melodic element in a song can be remembered and identified and distinguished from other songs with just a few notes. Dare I guess that you don’t have the entire song playing in your head – just a line or two, or the chorus? Pop songs tend to be full of hooks; some seem to be nothing but hook. I’m not too sure about the totalitarian songs – I’m afraid I don’t know any.

Jpeg Jones – Stravinsky is catchy? Maybe parts of The Nutcracker, but that’s not really terribly dissonant – not the catchy parts, anyway. And yes, it’s the crappiest tunes that ARE designed to be catchy – better songwriters try not to rely quite so much on hooks.

Phase42 – The bass line can be a hook, but it’s I think it’s more often in the melody, so that you can sing it. cheesepickles’s observations are to the point; often, a hook is composed around chords that resolve tension.

Hey, I found it. The article on the “brain itch” that keeps songs stuck in one’s head.

(Kinda surprised to find it, actually.)

Raindrops keep falling on my head…

There is research trying to find a predictable, replicatable basis for “catchiness” - the same attempt to scientifically identify characteristics of smell or vision that consumers find pleasing. I believe there is a program now that analyzes songs for their catchiness based on type of melodic phrase, types of harmonies used, rhythms used and repetitiveness (amongst other criteria, no doubt) to “rate” a song on its chart potential. I have read that this program is being used already by some labels to decide which single to release off an album or even during production to determine if a song needs adjusting before a final cut is decided upon.

Frightens the crap out of me - it sounds exactly like the poem-geometry scene at the beginning of Dead Poets’ Society, reducing art and beauty to a mathematical formula…

Originally posted by Phase42
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on
Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on…

dang it. why did you have to write that? well, ha! it’s not gonna work anyway 'cause i’m listening to other music right now. but i get it’ll come and haunt me later.

Ahem… The Nutcracker is by Tchaikovsky.

Also the tempo.

I read an interview with a pop composer recently , sorry no cite, that up until a few years ago pop and dance music was composed around a tempo of about 120 beats per minute, but that more recently the tempo has increased to about 130 beats per minute. He attributed this phenomena to the wide spread use of the rave drug ectasy and its effects on the perceptions of the users.

I just skimmed over the replies…

I would have to say that memes or elements of memedom could be found in some songs.


Also, I would have to agree that repititon is the main factor in catchyness. I also think a good selling song takes its medium to a destination never before seen, or new altogether…

I am sure many people who read this post will have heard of , and in most cases own “Hey Ya!” by Outkast (Ok dopers in the US that is) This song to me has the right balance of Spoken word, retroesque tunes and an overall unique experience.

Upon buying the Speakerboxx/The Love Below Double CD, I read the lyrics, and Arista the Record Label refers to the Choruses as “Hooks”, and other Arista Artists have refered to Hooks in their works as well (P!nk). I would Assume that a higher level of Psychology and Audio Asthetics are enginered and doctored to sell CDs. I would also assume that this practice has been rampped up since the birth of MP3s

:smack: Igor, bring me another brain!

Jpeg, I’ll certainly agree that this is GD material. But I’ll also agree with Nametag that “catchy” is hardly the word I’d use to describe Stravinsky (unless we’re referring to something of his like his * Pulchinella Suite*).

At the same time, I do believe we can come to some conclusions about what makes some music catchy and I also believe it has less to do with personal taste than one might think. I’m not going to even try to go into specific factors; once I open that can of worms I’ll be up all night trying to sum up 2 semesters of tonal theory and voice leading.

But think about all those annoying cell phone melodies. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can’t deny their catchiness. The initial theme of Mozart’s symphony#40 (1st mov’t) will be with you forever after a single listen. Heck, a whole bunch of Mozart’s melodies have a way of sticking, as does Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Repetition certainly can be, and very often is a factor, but I don’t believe it’s a necessary one. Sure pop music stations exploit the effect of repetition to a nauseating degree, but take the opening motive to Mozart’s Ein Kline Nachtmusik. I believe that’ll stick with even non-musical people after a single listen, and it isn’t like it’s inherently repetitive.

I think generally it has a lot to do with shape and balance, and tension and release.

I’m really tired, but I’ll try to post some specifics about what I mean tomorrow.