Hooks and earworms: What makes pop songs so catchy?
summary: Researchers are exploring why certain songs are constantly stuck in our heads and why these “hooks” are the guiding principle of modern popular music.
Source: University of Wollongong
“Hey, I just met you, and it’s crazy…but that’s my number, so call me, maybe.”
These wise and catchy lyrics are Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen’s lyrics from her 2012 song “Call Me Maybe.” The song topped music charts all over the world, including in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
But what made this song so popular? Why, 10 years later, is he still so memorable? What makes any song stand out and easy to remember?
These questions are just some of the many explored in “Hooks in Popular Music” (Palgrave McMillan 2022) – a new book co-authored by University of Wollongong (UOW) researcher Dr. Timothy Byron and Dr. Jade O’Regan (Sydney Music Conservatorium).
It is the first book-length study of hooks in popular music that attempts to explain why certain songs get stuck in our heads and why these “hooks” are the guiding principle of modern popular music.
Dr Byron of the University of Wollongong’s School of Psychology said the book defines a hook as a musical moment or phrase that stands out and is easily remembered. These are the parts of songs most likely to end up as “earworms,” the elements of songs that get stuck in our heads.
“Hooks are deeply personal – what is a devastatingly impactful hook for one person, may slip right in front of another unnoticed,” Dr. Byron said.
“The hooks can be a beat, or a timbre, or a melody, and it’s not something added on top, it’s really the defining texture of pop music.
“It’s not that other genres don’t use hooks, you see hooks in rock, but for pop music itself, we think it’s the core of what makes it stand out.”
The book provides a range of examples of hooks in popular songs from the past 30 years, including the catchy chorus of Kylie Minogue’s 2001 song “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, 1997’s Third Eye Blind “Semi Charmed Life” and the 2022 song The Unforgettable “As It Was” by Harry Styles.
Dr. Byron said hooks are important to modern pop music because artists want their songs to stand out.
“It’s been said on the radio that if people hear a song they don’t know, they’ll wait about seven seconds before changing the station and it’s probably the same for modern broadcast services,” said Dr Byron.
“Pop songs have to have a quick impact and to stand out in front of the listener, they have to have an impact.
Dr. Byron adds that the hook concept is not new.
“Through our research we have found that the term hook is used to refer to a subsection of a remarkably popular piece of music that has occurred since at least the 1960s.”
The authors are both musicians but had different motivations for writing the book. Dr. Byron’s expertise lies in the psychology of music, particularly the way music interacts with memory. While Dr. O’Regan focuses on teaching music at the Sydney Conservatory of Music.
“I’m very interested in the psychology of what makes a song special and why some songs are easier to remember and I wanted to explore that in this book,” said Dr. Byron.
“For me as a psychologist it’s interesting to remember something because there are so many things we don’t remember at all. We hardly remember what we did a week ago, so for people to remember anything at all there has to be something special about it..
“If a song gets our attention, if there’s a song that we remember, it means it’s doing something right and it’s almost tapping into the details of how our memory and attention work.”
For Dr. O’Regan, the impetus for the book came from her educational background and experience.
“I teach contemporary music and many of my students are authors, producers, and artists, and we often talk in class about the idea of ear candy,” said Dr. O’Regan.
“Students were asking me where they could go to learn more about these concepts, and I realized there was really nowhere I could send them.
“And then I realized we really needed to write something.”
The end result was a 459-page online textbook covering everything from the psychology of memory to the role of studying hooks in popular musicology.
“Hooks in Popular Music” is a comprehensive work that fills a gap in the literature that discusses the importance of what makes a song catchy and, as Alanis Morissette memorably put it in 1995, it’s the kind of thing you “should know.”
About this music and auditory neuroscience research news
author: press office
Source: University of Wollongong
Contact: Press Office – University of Wollongong
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