Scientists unearth ‘earworm’ tune’s secrets

Hat trick: Do Pharrell Williams’s skills in writing catchy tunes make him the new Mozart?

Psychologists think they have discovered the formula that makes songs like ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams so irresistibly catchy. Is music’s mystery devalued if we understand what makes a hit?

Some tunes just keep coming back and Pharrell Williams’s million-selling hit single Happy is definitely one of them. It has been number one in the UK Top 40 Singles Chart on three separate occasions since Christmas, the first song to do that since the 1950s.

Despite dropping from the top spot this week, it seems that the track has staying power. While we are waiting for a bus, having a bath or boiling a kettle, our internal iPod will start playing it unannounced and keep repeating it, whether we want it to or not. Its simple melody and chorus make it an ‘earworm’ — a catchy tune that burrows into our head and refuses to go away.

Psychologists are interested in earworms because of what they tell us about how the brain works. And now researchers think they have worked out the science behind what makes songs like Happy so irresistible.

The Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths College in London has been looking at over 1,000 of the most stubborn earworms. Using computers they have analysed their structure to see which parts make a tune addictive. The team now believes it can predict whether a song has the potential to be an earworm with over 80% success.

And Happy is a perfect example. Highly repetitive, it allows listeners to grasp the tune with minimum listening effort, while the relatively minor changes in the melody make it more memorable. It seems that our brains get a cerebral high when expectations of how a melody will continue are confirmed. Even the dancers in the music video contribute to the song’s appeal, as they reinforce its positive message, a technique known as ‘embodied listening’.

Soul music

Could a better understanding of earworms transform our feelings about music? The Goldsmiths researchers believe they are getting closer to discovering what makes the perfect pop song, but for some this approach is depressing. What if it only helps music industry moguls to create more of the same identical, monotonous music with which to pollute the charts? A formula for creating superficially catchy, but shallow and soulless songs? The logical extension, surely, is that computers could compose? We should resist attempts to reduce the most mysterious art form to a formula.

But others believe that we all benefit by greater knowledge of the science underpinning music. It should increase our admiration of those musicians and composers who create and perform great works which move us. Patterns and simple rules are everywhere in music. But it still takes a Beethoven to turn a simple four-note phrase and transform it into the Fifth Symphony, and it takes the voice of an Amy Winehouse to move us with her songs of love and loss.

You Decide

  1. Are Pharrell Williams’s song, and the ‘earworms’ like it, brilliant, or just annoying?
  2. Can popular music and classical music be analysed for patterns in the same way? Should they be?

Activities

  1. In groups, make a list of catchy songs and memorable pieces of music that get stuck in your head. Discuss the similarities and differences between your choices.
  2. Decide who you think is the best composer or songwriter of all time, and write a two minute speech giving your reasons. Get the class to vote on which was the most persuasive speech.

Some People Say...

“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.’Friedrich Nietzsche”

What do you think?

Q & A

I can’t stop listening to Happy. Is that bad?
Not necessarily, although you may eventually get sick of the song if you listen to it over and over — a song’s catchiness can also eventually become its downfall. But earworms can have positive side effects. Scientists are investigating whether they actually help the brain stay alert, and say that tunes that replay endlessly in our heads might also change our mood and energy levels.
So is the song good, or bad?
A simple melody and lyrics do not necessarily make a song bad. Think of all the fantastic composers, from the classical greats like Mozart to the modern era’s most successful songwriters like Lennon and McCartney or Abba: no one criticises them for coming up with memorable melodies. Composers had ‘hits’ even before charts were invented.

Word Watch

Pharrell Williams
He has been producing music since 1992, and has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani. In 2003, he helped produce almost 20% of all songs played on British radio and 43% on US radio.
Happy
Williams also created the world’s first 24 hour music video for the song, featuring cameos from actor Steve Carell, Kelly Osbourne and a huge cast of anonymous dancers all bopping along to his infectious tune.
Embodied listening
The idea that music perception is based on action. So if you dance along to a song, or even watch other people do so like in the video for Happy, you remember the song much more easily.

Subjects

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