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What makes music catchy?

What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 08:57:10 AM
While this question is sufficient in and of itself to prompt a discussion on the topic, there is a specific sense I wish to convey the question. Maybe some of you already concieved an idea of how to answer this question before reading the post and have something interesting to contribute. Feel free to post. On the other hand, I do have some remarks I want to make insofar as I can hope to bring everyone together into a similar understanding, and see what I see.

How is music catchy? Music gets stuck in my head almost everyday while doing random mundane tasks. It is as if I have absolutely no control over what or when something 'pops' into my head (except, interestingly, when I put music on). The observation I want to call to attention is that only certain parts of songs get stuck in my head. Usually this might be a motif, chorus, introduction, bass line, etc. The point is, entire songs don't play themselves out, typically, from beginning to end. It is always a part or two of a song, which makes it identifiable, that chooses to haunt me throughout the day (not only music applies but random beeping and machinery from work gets stuck in my head too - industrial makes sense in this context since marching about in a warehouse makes for a steady unflinching drumbeat as the genre is known for).

 To me this means that simplicity is privledged over complexity. A jingle is going to have an advantage over a symphony in this respect. The intro to Beethoven's 5th has this over the rest of the symphony.

Part of what this question entails is how is some music catchy and others not? Even if we are talking about songs with identical song structure, why or how is one song just another number on the charts while another is, wait for it, Gangnam Style? The question, then, also asks us to focus on aesthetic content of a song independently of its structure (although its structure helps emphasize or highlight the key musical theme by repetition). This is because aesthetic content is more immediately/intuitively known. Understanding and judging the structure of a song is an analysis, or a second nature, that engages different faculties than when we are "swept up" or "lost" in the aesthetic content so to speak. To put the point provacatively, no one is drawn to music because of a fundamental desire for a desire to engage the structure of its songs - that's just a contingent feature. The real reason is that people are originally drawn to music is that the aesthetic content is agreeable to the listener.

Here I will insert an argument that illustrates what might be at stake. If my remarks have enough validity, does it follow that professionally catchy, aka popular music, is properly adapted to the reality of how we experience music getting stuck in our heads? That is, by emphasizing the chorus or main theme above all else it appeals to a fundamental sensibility - our being attracted to short, nearly mindless parts of songs that we most readily remember.

 One final way to put the question: how is it that the musical acts that have managed to become so readily popular done so? Was it accidental (meaning if certain conditions were right we'd all be listening to death metal on Fm radio) or is it essential ( meaning that popular music appeals to people on a more fundamental level such as I described how simple, yet, catchy parts of songs get stuck in my head)?

The more unfortunate historic narritives of artistic movements is also, hopefully, visible in the idea presented. The birth of genres, their "catching" on, the variating on the core identifying aesthetic content, and finally - at the other end of this cycle - the movements reduction into a simplified commercial format. Hopefully I have shown a connection between the final part of this cycle and our unconscious brain's preference for simple catchy musical phrases (with or without our consent).

What does it mean for a music that rejects this reality for the pursuit of "other," perhaps unknown, artistic ideals?

These remarks may seem as if I have answered the question myself, but I want to consider this investigation as open, and welcome other's approach to this or another interpretation. Perhaps I have used the word catchy in multiple senses and as a result made the meaning of it more difficult to discern. If I have missed something please include it in your post. Thank you for reading.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 12:42:11 PM
There was a good article on this site about why metal is so obsessed with riffs. It reminded me a lot of some of the arguments you were making.

In short, it comes down to being able to anticipate certain things in the music just as they happen.  You get a similar reward to solving a puzzle when you guess right.  My guess is that these are the most memorable parts of the music, simply because you associate it with that good feeling.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 03:24:00 PM
Sadly the link does not contain the article you seem to speak of. But I can see how in a riff a musical idea is repeated after a number of measures and thus reinforced. Maybe a reading of the article would reveal this general point?

Interesting that you should say that we anticipate music in a way even as if we knew it was bound to happen. A random assemblage of noise, for example, doesn't quite have the same effect on us when we first hear it until it is repeated several times. But then again this does not explain how we instantly bond, for better or worse, with a catchy new idea we have never before heard.

It is almost as if there is ONE fundamental song that on some level we are all aware of and can anticipate, like you said. All songs we hear are an attempt to embody this one song and the reason why some songs are catchier than others is that they get closer to this one song than all the others. This explanation is quasi - metaphysical, verging on the point of Platonic forms, which I don't particularly care for, but entertain merely for the sake of discussion since theoretical topics are more difficult than practical ones.

But if an understanding of how or why this works completely eludes us, then perhaps questions that are remaing are what to Do with this tendency of ours? Take it more or less in account when listening or making music? Is it abused or not? Etc.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 03:27:57 PM
Repetition begets more repetition, loved by many, unless one is predisposed to avoid it.
Being of the latter type, I mostly evade music for precisely that reason.
Repetition is beguiling, but can end up drowning out every other thing.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 03:32:54 PM
humans like all things in universe are based on patterns. Patterns are repetitions. The one fundamental song would be the basic pattern of this universe. You can escape patterns and repetition if you go beyond things. into the mystery.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 03:55:27 PM
Haha :)
There you have it. Hats-off to you, sir.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 04:27:25 PM
Am I reading in between the lines when I infer, then, that Gangnam Style (or pop music in general maybe) more closely resembles the pattern of the universe? Then there is music that is less organized and or more chaotic - maybe death metal, noise,  classical, or minimalist fits this category in more or lessor degrees by comparison to pop. What are such genres doing when they turn away from repetition of patterns that we and many find to be so catchy? This "going into the mystery " as lost_wanderer has mentioned makes us wonder as to the purpose of doing so. Yet at the same time, pop music is always coming out with new songs everyday. They go into the mystery as well - just maybe not as far.

Could it be we find patterns enjoyable yet repulsive at the same time?

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 05:00:07 PM
Compulsive, perhaps.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 05:50:23 PM
Compulsive too. I did have in mind a sense of boredom or general dissatisfaction when I wrote repulsive. As you particularly said you avoid music for the reason that it is repetitive. On the other end of the extreme when you observe how people listen to music, they typically don't play the exact same song on repeat all night. This kind of kills the song and is why new music is always in demand. On the other hand repetition is great in a sort of moderation. Too much and it gets old fast.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 06:28:35 PM
For sure, some annoying part of my brain likes the repetition, and consequently it digs a groove and repeats inside my head, sometimes for days even weeks. Which drives the other parts crazy.
That liking is probably connected with the part that keeps addicts taking their drug of choice over and over, in the full knowledge it will one day finish them.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 23, 2014, 08:19:19 PM
In short, it comes down to being able to anticipate certain things in the music just as they happen.  You get a similar reward to solving a puzzle when you guess right.

Good summary. There is also a flip side to this: unanticipated repetition, i.e. repetition in an unusual place. Like jokes, riffs reward the familiar gag.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 24, 2014, 01:52:44 PM
Repetition begets more repetition, loved by many, unless one is predisposed to avoid it.
Being of the latter type, I mostly evade music for precisely that reason.
Repetition is beguiling, but can end up drowning out every other thing.

Life is uncertain, unpredictable, unknowable; a pretty fearsome trifecta.  And, indeed, many are afraid.  Repetition is comforting.  It provides the illusion, not just of knowledge, but of foreknowledge, the illusion, moreover, that we are in control.  "Catchy" music tells us what we already think we know in ways that are comfortably familiar.

Re: What makes music catchy?
February 25, 2014, 06:40:37 PM
Not on music, but related:

We have a record (called "books") of the words that shaped human cognition over the centuries. We also have a record of images that shaped the minds of people over the centuries. Unfortunately, we don't have a record of the sounds that people heard in past ages. This is a part of the human experience that historians have always neglected.

When we analyze the work of an artist (whether a writer or a painter or an architect or even a composer), we tend to focus on the visual aspect of the artist's life: how the landscape and the people looked like. We rarely analyze the sounds that the artist was hearing and that probably contributed as much as the looks to the art. The reason is very simple: we have a record of how the world and how the people looked like in the old days, whereas we don't have a record of how the world and the people "sounded" like before the invention of recording. Nonetheless, i suspect that even a painting was influenced by the sounds that the painter was hearing.

I believe that this change in the sounds that surround our existence has caused a corresponding change in the way brains work. We are shaped by the sounds that we perceive. Every age has perceived a different sets of sounds. Therefore the minds of each age have worked differently.