What makes a song catchy?
This article is both a continuation and departure from the last series of articles where we studied the different popular song forms. Now, I want to focus on common themes and practices in songs. Let us first define ‘catchiness’: how easy it is for someone to remember a song, tune or phrase. This is most easily measured by its commercial viability and particularly by looking at songs that are extremely popular.
Let’s look at some of the common features of a song that sells well (presumably because it is indeed catchy and not because the evil music industry has used subliminal messages to trigger us like hypnotized zombie slaves). Typically it has some common characteristics, like when things happen: the length of a song (between 3:30 and 4 minutes) lets us focus on the main hook or ‘catchy bit’ and not lose interest and forget it before the end of a song; the title of a song will occur before a minute has passed and then repeat anywhere from 3 to 30 times throughout; the vocals often start after a 13 second intro (interestingly enough, this is regardless of the tempo or speed of the song). The tempo is usually mid-tempo to fast, and the correllation between how long a song is in the charts and the tempo is shown by how fast a ballad can shoot up the charts, but then not stay up there as long as a medium speed hit.
The lyrical content is a huge factor, in fact 74% of all earworms (the psychoacoustic phenomenon whereby a song is stuck in your head, also known as ‘smurfing’. See? I got you, right…) are songs with lyrics, with jingles (15 percent) and instrumental songs only accounting for 11%. Pop songs take advantage of this and often use well known sayings as their title. Ooh la la, Va Va Voom, Kiss and Tell, the list goes on, just listen to the radio for more. The prominent position of the title is the difference between you trying to hum a song to a Dj at 2am and being able to find it in the record store first time. Essentially the tried and true method is to start or finish the chorus with this word or phrase and not bury it in the middle of a line.
Perhaps the most important aspect is the part that gets stuck in your head and you find yourself singing in the shower – the melody. Sure the chord progression sets the mood for the lyrics to say what you’ve always wanted to say, well timed changes in a song can capture your interest but the melody will embed itself in your brain. Singability is a common rule for songwriters, including having a range that’s practical for the entire audience to join in with to fill the stadium, however this rule can be broken if it’s memorable enough, just think of the Mariah Carey songs that are butchered at karaoke bars because it requires a special talent (and 3 octave range) to pull it off. There is also a trend to add a lyricless hook to a pop song, such as in Katy Perrys ‘Roar’ or ‘Moves Like Jagger’ by Maroon 5 (coincidentally, both produced and co-written by the same pool of producers).
I’ll leave you with a question. Does an artist (or producer) make the fans like a song or do they produce something that contains enough familiar elements? And instead of giving you more to ponder, here are earworms, some of which should get stuck in your head regardless of your vintage or taste in music: Achy Breaky Heart, Macarena, Who let the dogs out, Barbra Streisand, Tequila, Popcorn, Telstar and Axel F/Crazy Frog.