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Science Explains: What makes a song catchy?

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So, Despacito is now the most streamed song of all time, with over 4.6 billion plays. Just reading its name in this article may have already caused you to imagine the sexy latin beat and suggestive Spanish words that make up the chorus. If this is the case, you’ve just experienced a psychological phenomenon known as involuntary musical imagery (INMI), more commonly known as an earworm. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with you. It is simply the experience of imagining a section of music without having any control over it, or basically getting a song stuck in your head. A study by Lassi Liikkanen from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology found that over 90% of us experience INMI at least once per week, so it’s a pretty common occurrence for most of us.

But what makes a song stick in your head? Research led by Burunat from the University of Jyvaskyla found that when participants listened to music, there was an increase in activity in the medial temporal lobe area, which is a region associated with long term memory formation and storage. This would suggest that musical memory is processed and stored similarly to other types of memory, such as learning the stages of mitosis or somebody’s name. Therefore, a song will enter the long term memory the same way that other facts do.

If you listen to any radio station, chances are you’ve heard Despacito playing pretty much non-stop over the past 4 months…

And what is the best way to learn a fact? Repetition, repetition, repetition. If you listen to any radio station, chances are you’ve heard Despacito playing pretty much non-stop over the past few months. This excessive airtime has allowed for the song to be repeated in everyone’s minds over and over again, thus allowing it to be processed into long term memory.

So when a song becomes familiar enough, it can enter the long term memory, which is the case for Despacito in more ways than you would expect. The chord progression of the song is Bm-G-D-A, or vi-IV-I-V in Roman numerals. This is known as a common chord progression because, as the name suggests, many memorable songs use the same progression in different keys. Songs you’ll probably recognise that use this trick include Adele’s “Hello,” Avicii’s “Hey Brother” and, perhaps the most memorable song of the decade, Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go.” It isn’t very obvious, even when you’re aware of its existence, but the human brain is remarkable at noticing patterns and could possibly detect this familiar sequence subconsciously. Therefore, it is likely that using this chord progression gives the song a small sense of familiarity upon first hearing it, improving its ability to be remembered.

When a song becomes familiar enough, it can enter the long term memory, which is the case for Despacito in more ways than you would expect…

Finally, association is a powerful tool for helping you to remember things and could be another reason why this song is so catchy. The Spanish lyrics and the Latin American beat bring strong connotations of sun, sea, sand and securing a cheap holiday deal; something we were all dreaming of during exam season. As research led by Williamson at Goldsmiths’ College suggests, these two associations could be responsible for not only the memorisation of this song, but also the episodes of INMI (i.e. the song coming to mind for no apparent reason) that we may experience. Since we are currently wishing it was still summer, it is natural to think of things associated with the season. Since Despacito  was such a strong contender for song of the summer, these associations could strengthen our memory of the tune.

So when it comes to remembering a song, there’s a lot more to it than first meets the ear. Whether intentional or not, many popular songs employ a variety of techniques to make them as memorable as possible, such as common chord progressions or memory association. However, sometimes it’s best not to overthink things and just do it like they do it down in Puerto Rico.

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