In a 2011 science study, Goldsmith University declared Queen‘s “We Are the Champions” to be the catchiest song of all-time, beating out tracks like “Y.M.C.A” by the Village People, Sum 41’s “Fat Lip,” Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” and The Automatic’s “Monster.” Even more interesting than the results, though, is the process by which this was determined, as well as said process’s inevitable follow-up question: how can science quantify the catchiness of a song?
The modern music landscape, like never before, is overrun by technologies that attempt to turn the art of music into sequences of numbers and sonic modules. Streaming sites and other industry giants use this codification approach to figure out what it is about certain kinds of music that really strikes a chord. Does “We Are the Champions” get stuck in your head more than any other song ever? If it does, is there any way it’s actually a universal phenomenon? Especially today, these are questions worth exploring.
The Echo Nest, an MIT-born company, is a music intelligence platform that specializes in personalizing music. It culls millions of data points from its massive library of songs. Those songs are dissected into micro-modules and then assembled piecemeal in predictive models. Spotify, recognizing the merit of identifying what creates a person’s unique taste, bought The Echo Nest in 2014 and merged their data into its hallowed API. Now, after observing a person’s listening habits and correlating their data points, they can use these models to suggest a person’s particular taste profile, and they fuel discovery engines that then lead to other music with overlapping characteristics. So, if someone likes “catchy” songs, what exactly does that mean?
For the study, Goldsmith asked 1,100 of volunteers to sing a select list of songs (though it’s unclear how they constructed that list of songs, which is a potentially problematic aspect of the study). The University found that the most “singable” songs were marked by four main features: pitches that changed during the song’s hook, long and detailed musical phrases, male voices, and, in particular, high male voices that displayed palpable effort and purpose during the song. Considering the last rule, it’s not surprising that Freddie Mercury took home top prize.
As NME reported when the study was released, Goldsmith music psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen had this to say of the results: “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology; from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesizers which can add effects to make a song more catchy.”
I don’t know about you, but all of this still seems pretty vague. Why do “hi-tech digital processors and synthesizers” make a song “more catchy”? Not all synthesizers accomplish this, surely. Is it the timbre? A particular rhythm? A certain harmonic progression that hits us right in the gut and makes us feel all of the things? And why does it have to be a man?
“Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs,” Mullensiefen said. Have our subconsciouses not evolved past an urge to follow men into battle? Were our psyches ever consumed by war to the degree that we can only associate music with a battle cry? It feels a bit patriarchal and unfounded, but then again, I’m no psychologist, and this song is about championing an earned place in this world. I do very strongly believe, though, that our attraction to “singable” music can’t possibly serve some primal urge for violence. And Mullensiefen does go on to assert that our musical proclivities are the product of a great many things.
“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song,” he continued. “We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”
Personally, I hope no one cracks the equation for a “textbook tune.” And I’m not convinced that there is one. What about things like cultural disparity? Some countries use entirely different scales and tonal areas than can be found in the Western canon. Indigenous people living outside of Western culture wouldn’t necessarily call “We Are the Champions” catchy. Ultimately, though, despite the questionable methods and conclusions of the study, it certainly raises a very valid question: why do we like the music that we like?”
Enter grey matter. Grey matter is a collection of neuronal cell bodies stored in various regions throughout the brain. It is primarily associated with the processing and cognition of sensory perception. When you meet someone for the first time, grey matter helps process the language with which that person greets you. It helps process his or her appearance, how you feel when you interact with that person, and even helps remember all of these features so that you can recall this interaction and subjectively evaluate how that person made you feel.
Likewise, grey matter helps us process the feelings evoked by music. Different melodies, harmonies, and instrumental combinations all elicit unique reactions in each and every one of us. Music supplements our moods because, like everything else we perceive, it is processed by our grey matter. It affects each of us differently, and we all consequently establish distinct musical tastes.
Music, like computers, can be broken down into mathematical statistics. Pitches and rhythms can all be enumerated as numerical series. There’s something slightly perverse to me, though, about translating something so organic as music into sets of algorithms and data points. Sure you can codify Freddie Mercury’s triumphant vocal melody into numbers that denote frequency and amplitude and pitch to the thousandth decimal point. But once you leave behind the numbers and examine the broad strokes, those searing guitars and fervent declarations and their decadent combination, everything becomes intangible and hits us—though not all of us—in ways indescribable by science.
So, try as it might to dig into our patterns and inclinations, science will never truly understand how we feel when we listen to music. We all have patterns and inclinations, but our grey matter is constantly shifting deep within the fleshy lobes of our brains, unbeholden to anything so rigid as an algorithm. In a way, this makes Queen’s most widely known song all the more impressive. Keeping in mind that Freddie Mercury’s voice is not governed by the laws of physicc; it is my deepest hope that music remains forever unknowable.
Image: EMI Records