(Or… The Inherent Bias of what makes a Tune ‘Catchy)
So, you’ve been asked to write some music that’s ‘catchy’, ‘sing-able’ and ‘hummable’? Or you’re after it from your composer?
This isn’t rare. A huge proportion of my career has involved writing music that is deliberately memorable. But what does a tune being ‘catchy’ actually mean? Aren’t all good tunes memorable? Or is it their ‘memorable-ness’ that makes them ‘good’?
Is a tune’s simplicity that makes it something more natural to remember? Or does a tune taking an unusual or expected turn lodge it in our minds? Does a tune’s range being within our own ability to comfortably sing it mean that we’re more likely to do so and so, you’ve guessed it… remember it?
What is ‘catchy’?
It’s important to consider why we personally feel some tunes are catchy. Do we just mean popular? And by popular do we just mean they’ve had omnipresent exposure? Or even that they are deliberately played or placed in moments or situations where the tune can become more of a focus?
Is it the tune itself or how it’s used that makes it memorable?
Already familiar tunes such as the James Bond or Mission: Impossible themes often feel held back in recent film scores, saved for that big, climactic, emotionally-charged moment. The tune’s familiarity brings with it the associated emotion from years of use alongside exciting cinematic and televisiual moments.
If you find yourself humming part of a recent original soundtrack (one that isn’t from a spy franchise that’s been familiar since the 1960s), there’s a good chance you’re remembering the accompanying impact of the scene and not just the nice music from the end credits. Or the reason that you’re remembering the music is because of how the combination of scene and music together made you feel that really imprinted it on your synapses. Or, at least, that seems to be the way for me.
Consider the moment ET and Elliot fly in silhouette across the moon:
Across the Moon – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – Movie Clip
Or (a personal favourite) the train station scene from Unbreakable:
Go to where people are – Unbreakable
Equally, repetition can be key. Scientists chose what they considered the catchiest-ever songs and there are some really clear ‘hooks’ in many of the examples.
Often a catchy tune uses a ‘hook’ or a motif. Sometimes the hook’s melody is based around repeated lyrics in order to sear it into your mind. Is the end of advertisement jingle singing ‘Compare the mar-ket… dot com’ catchy in its own right? Or does it only work alongside the lyrics?
For me, part of the reason John Williams’ triumphant soundtrack for Superman: The Movie stays in my mind is because I can’t help but sing ‘Sup-er-man’ under my breath for its main hook’s climax (once you’ve heard it, you can’t hear it!).
Listen on YouTube
What is catchy for you?
Well that’s lot of questions that largely skirt around one major factor – it’s all subjective.
There are definite similarities between tunes that the majority of us find ‘catchy’, however we might define it. However, when a brief asks for a tune to be catchy, what we have to remember is that the client is in reality asking for is a tune that they find catchy. As well as considering factors that could generally make a tune memorable, there are also factors to question further: what might be the inherent (and possibly unconscious) biases of who you’re writing it for?
As a composer, I’ve trained to remember a melody on the first hearing. It’s a fairly straightforward skill that comes from deliberate practice that says more about my history than any tune that I personally find memorable. So I have to consider my now-inherent biases and keep checking back with the client to see if what I consider catchy works on them.
But even without having consciously developed that skill, some audiences might simply be more primed to remember a tune than others, be it via nature or nurture – and even then, it also depends on what mood the listener is in, as memories are often encoded through emotion.
Even between two listeners who haven’t trained in this skill, what’s catchy to one doesn’t guarantee catchiness for both. Two people with different social backgrounds, cultural backgrounds or musical preferences might connect with or be ‘caught’ by different music.
With all clients that make this request, I’ve found it extremely useful for them to share pieces of music they like with a few notes on what it is they like about it. This gives me key context for their tastes and mindset.
However, we can likely all list plenty of examples of very popular melodies, music pieces or songs that have become earworms after only one listen. So, even if we have inherent biases in how we notice and remember music, the odds are we share many of those biases with others. So all is not lost.
In my experience, memorable can often mean being very very simple. Perhaps a melody will have one or two big intervallic leaps and these can be surrounded by some smaller stepwise motions within those leaps.
The motif itself is short maybe 4 or 5 notes. This motif pattern can be repeated up or down the scale (have a listen to the Lightyear soundtrack by the maestro of memorable melodies, Giacchino, for the perfect example).
These simple tunes can have a simple or compound, but not irregular (unless it’s hammered home with a very simple set of repeated rhythms, as in Mission: Impossible!), time signature and will likely be within a very narrow range of notes – vastly less than the human voice is capable of. However, that still doesn’t mean it will be easily sing-able – so it’s always worth checking if by ‘memorable’ a client means ‘singable’, or vice versa.
In conclusion, if you’re briefing a composer, it’s good to be aware of the potential, personal biases in what you’re asking for, and, as always, allow for a number of revisions to allow them to zero in on what you really mean when you ask for a ‘catchy’ tune.
If you are the composer, there are definitely several things you can do to increase the likeliness of your music being memorable.
However, on either side, the desire for memorable music really needs to just be the beginning of the conversation.
Further reading if you’re interested: