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What Makes a Song “Catchy?”

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By Hunter Farris

“Why do we like the music we like?”

That has been the overarching question of all of my musical studies for the past few years. I’m constantly seeking to figure out why some songs just stand out among an ocean of others, to help people understand the music they love, and how to write music that other people will love.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to cover “catchiness,” but after pursuing some avenues of thought, and asking a lot of people why they consider their favorite songs to be catchy, most of my responses turned out to be… well, pretty shallow (and no that’s not a Lady Gaga reference). So I decided to approach the subject from the intersection of music theory and psychology. 

A group of researchers at the University of Amsterdam got there first. In studying “catchiness,” they defined it as the following:

“From a cognitive point of view… we define catchiness as long-term musical salience, the degree to which a musical fragment remains memorable after a period of time.”

That definition mostly stays in the realm of psychology, so let’s explore the question from this angle first: Psychologically, what makes a song memorable? And psychologically, what makes a song catchy?

There are as many answers to that question as there are catchy songs, and we can’t discuss all of them in one article. But let’s start by explaining the step-by-step process of how our brains remember a song — from encoding, to retrieval, to continuation — and how simplicity helps with all of that. I’ll provide some ideas to prime the pump, and you can fill in the gaps with other ideas of your own.

What makes a song memorable?

For a song to be memorable, it’s not enough for you to just hear the song. You have to get that song lodged into your memory. This process is called “encoding,” it’s the process of putting a memory into storage so you can pull it out later.

Your brain has a few different types of storage where it can encode memory. Today, we’ll only talk about two of them: episodic memory and procedural memory.

Episodic Memory

Episodic memory is the memory of the episodes of our lives — the experiences we’ve had, the events in our lives, whether it’s your first date, your first gig, or your first time watching Star Wars. So how can you help people encode songs in their episodic memory? Well, episodic memory is all about how these events connect to you.

When people talk about 9/11, they often say, “I remember exactly where I was when the towers fell.” That’s the kind of internalizing connection to self that I’m talking about. So one way to do this musically would be to reference melodies, chord progressions, and rhythms that people already know and have experienced. Familiarity is one of the many ways you could get your song into someone’s episodic memory.

Procedural Memory

Procedural memory, on the other hand, is more about remembering procedures, things that you unconsciously do. When “We Will Rock You” by Queen comes on, you’re not thinking about how to stomp-stomp-clap along. You just unconsciously do it. That’s procedural memory, and the song is a trigger.

There are plenty of other things we do unconsciously, from skills we’ve previously mastered and basic motor skills, to speaking and humming. After all, you don’t think about how to move your lips when you speak. You just speak.

So how can you help encode your song in someone’s procedural memories? Firstly you could try writing lyrics that are physically easy to sing — words that roll off the tongue smoothly and don’t trip up your lips or your tongue. A second idea would be to make the words mentally easy to remember — by using simple words, common words, words with which your audience would be familiar.

There are plenty of other ways to get someone to encode your song in your listener’s procedural memory, and I’d love for you to come up with other ways. Whichever strategy you choose, getting someone to encode your song in their memory is the essential step 1 to writing a memorable song.

But step 2 is to provide ways for your listener’s brain to pull your song out of storage, put in on their mental turntable, and drop the needle. And that process is called “retrieval,” and it’s what we usually think of as remembering something. There are a few different forms of retrieval. In this article, we’ll only talk about two of them: recollection and recognition.

Recollection

Recollection is the process of filling in a partial memory. When you remember a few words of a song and you’re trying to remember the next line, that’s recollection. So how can you help people to recollect your song? You could make sure people will have a reminder of the melody or lyrics somewhere in everyday life.

For example, whenever I go to a Chase ATM, the machine reminds me to take out my debit card with an ascending minor third, which is how “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding begins. Whenever I hear that, I’m presented with a partial memory of “Love Me Like You Do” and my brain starts to recollect the rest.

Recognition

Recognition is exactly what it sounds like: realizing you’ve been exposed to certain information before recognizing something. So how could you use that in your music? One of your options could be to make your song vaguely echo another song your listeners may have heard. For fans of Fall Out Boy, the film The Greatest Showman sounded recognizable when a certain vocal riff would appear in the film. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of hit songs over the years and some well-positioned melodic and timbral writing, and you’ll for sure connect some of those wires in your listeners’ brains at some point.

Now, obviously, these aren’t the only ways to help someone retrieve your song from their memory, and with so much music around us every day, it’s difficult to plan those moments. There are other ways to use recollection and recognition, and there are other forms of retrieval. But whatever method you choose, your audience needs a reason to retrieve your song from storage and put it into their conscious thought. A song that is never remembered is not a memorable song.

So, how do songs get stuck in our heads?

A song is in someone’s head if they’ve heard it enough times that they’d recognize it if they heard it again. But how do you actually get it stuck in their heads? How do you keep people from swatting your song out of their consciousness like a cognitive mosquito?

I’m going to call that process “continuation,” because it all boils down to making it natural for your audience’s brains to continue thinking about that memory, even if it’s in the back of their minds. Some songwriters do this by writing notes that lead smoothly to the next.

Sticking with one of the artists whose music just naturally seems to get stuck in people’s heads these days, Ellie Goulding’s “Close to Me” with Diplo and Swae Lee is a textbook in voice leading and diatonic melody writing for the sake of memory recall. Once we hear a few notes of her chorus, we subconsciously pick up on the chorus’s patterns of walking down the scale, so we expect the melody to keep walking down the scale as we subconsciously sing along.

During the words “close to me,” the melody emphasizes the 7th scale degree, which leads smoothly to the resolution of the next note, the 8th, or the octave. Then every time Goulding sings the word “animal,” she starts on the 4th scale degree, which leads smoothly to the next note of that progression. Almost every note of the chorus leads smoothly into the next so that when you start remembering the melody, it’s just feels natural to keep playing the song on your mental turntable.

Other songwriters encourage people to continue the song in their heads with repetition and vamps, by repeating lines and phrases over and over again. Whether it’s The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and their repeated “na-na-na-nas,” or Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” with its repeating “I want it. I got it,” repetition of course helps our brains lock on to the stimulus in a cognitive loop, never knowing when to stop.

Once you take advantage of continuation, whether by melodic phrase predictability or verbal repetition, or some other way, then your song will have a good chance of getting locked in someone’s head, and easily recalled. In other words, your song will be catchy.

Simplicity versus Complexity

It’s easy to read this and think, okay, so just make it really simple: “All catchy music is just simple music.” In a way there’s some truth to that statement, since so much of this revolves around creating familiar and predictable sounds, but that doesn’t inherently mean it needs to be simple.

Some songwriters might be tempted to shy away from the simple, and attempt to venture towards complexity. Remember: Simplicity is not always bad and complexity is not always good.

Simplicity has its virtues, and one of its virtues is that simplicity can more easily take advantage of the psychological processes of encoding, retrieval, and continuation. But I’m not talking about cognitive exploitation, or about writing songs to annoy people or just to make money. I’m talking about writing songs that will be memorable enough to mean something to your listeners.

Someone could care about your song enough to play it at their wedding. Your song could help set the tone of the space inside of someone’s small business. Your song could inspire someone to live out their dreams. People could sing their hearts out to your song at a party. Your song could bring people joy, or help them get through a tragedy. All of that can only happen if they can remember your song enough for it to matter to them.

Maybe that’s why songwriter Felix McGlennon said:

“I would sacrifice everything — rhyme, reason, sense, and sentiment— to catchiness.”

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Hunter Farris runs the Song Appeal podcast, which focuses on the psychology behind why we like the music we like. His podcast on music theory and music psychology has appealed broadly enough for Hunter to speak at Comic-Con 2018, and is instructive enough to be used as homework by a Music Theory professor. He currently teaches people to play piano by ear and make their own arrangements of other people’s music.

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