Hooks and Earworms: What Makes Pop Songs So Catchy?

Overview: Researchers are investigating why some songs constantly get 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 this is crazy… But here’s my number, so maybe give me a call.”

These wise and catchy words come from Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen from her 2012 hit “Call Me Maybe.” The song topped charts around the world, including in the United States, Canada and Australia.

But what was it about that song that made it so popular? Why, 10 years later, is it still so memorable? What makes a song stand out and easy to remember?

These questions are just a few of many explored in “Hooks in Popular Music” (Palgrave McMillan 2022) – a new book co-written by Dr. Timothy Byron, researcher from the University of Wollongong (UOW), and Dr. Jadey O’Regan (Sydney Music Conservatory).

It is the first book-based study of hooks in popular music that attempts to explain why some songs stick in our heads and why these hooks are the guiding principle of modern popular music.

Dr. Byron of UOW’s School of Psychology said the book defines a hook as a musical moment or musical phrase that stands out and is easy to remember. These are the bits of songs that tend to end up as “earworms,” ​​the elements of the songs that stick in our heads.

“Hooks are very personal – what is a devastatingly effective hook for one person can slip past another person unnoticed,” said Dr. Byron.

“Hooks can be a rhythm, a timbre or a melody and they’re not something added on top, they’re really the defining fabric of pop music.

“That’s not to say that other genres don’t use hooks. You see hooks in the riff in rock music, but for pop music itself, we just think it’s the core of what it pops.”

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 hit “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, Third’s song “Semi Charmed Life” 1997’s Eye Blind.” and Harry Styles’ memorable 2022 hit “As It Was.”

Dr. Byron said hooks are important to modern pop music because artists want their songs to stand out.

“It’s said on the radio that if people hear a song they don’t know, they’ll wait about seven seconds before changing channels and that’s probably true on modern streaming services,” said Dr. Byron.

“Pop songs have to make an impression quickly and to stand out to the listener they have to have a hook.

Dr. Byron adds that the concept of a hook is not new.

“Through our research, we found that the term hook is used to refer to a subsection of a piece of popular music that is notable in some way, having been around since the 1960s.”

The authors are both musicians, but had different motivations for writing the book. Dr. Byron’s expertise lies in music psychology, and in particular the way music interacts with memory. While dr. O’Regan focuses on teaching music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

“I’m very interested in the psychology of what makes a song stand out and why some songs are easy to remember and I wanted to explore that in this book,” said Dr. Byron.

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“For me as a psychologist, it is intriguing that something is remembered, because there are many things that we don’t remember at all. We could barely remember what we were doing a week ago, so if people want to remember something, there has to be something special about it.

This shows a record on a record player
It is the first book-based study of hooks in popular music that attempts to explain why some songs stick in our heads and why these hooks are the guiding principle of modern popular music. The image is in the public domain

“If a bit of a song catches our attention, if there’s a bit of a song that we remember, it’s doing something right and almost tapping into the specifics of how our memory and attention work.”

For dr. O’Regan, the impetus for the book came from her teaching background and experience.

“I teach contemporary music and many of my students are songwriters, producers and artists and in class we often talk about this idea of ​​ear numbing,” said Dr. O’Regan.

“Students asked me where they could go to learn more about these concepts, and I realized there was nowhere to send them.

“And then I realized we really had to write something.”

The end result was a 459-page online textbook that covers everything from the psychology of memorability to the role of the study of hooks in popular musicology.

“Hooks in Popular Music” is a comprehensive piece of work that fills a gap in the literature discussing the importance of what makes a song catchy, and as Alanis Morissette memorably said in 1995, it’s the “You Oughta Know” kind of thing.

About this music and auditory neuroscience research news

Writer: Press Office
Source: University of Wollongong
Contact: Press Service – University of Wollongong
Image: The image is in the public domain

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