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Psychologists uncover the secrets of the sing-along song

Published: 29 September 2011 09:00

Music psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of York have identified the scientific properties that give certain melodies the 'sing-along-able' factor.

The research monitored the behaviour of thousands of people as they sang along to more than a thousand tunes. The fieldwork, undertaken by expert musicologist Dr Alisun Pawley and Goldsmiths' Dr Daniel Mullensiefen, from the Department of Psychology, uncovered the common traits in songs that are most 'catchy'.

The results have been launched in conjunction with the final call for entries for the National Science & Engineering Competition to inspire young scientists of the future.

The four core elements that trigger people's inclination to sing are:

- Longer and detailed musical phrases. The breath a vocalist takes as they sing a line is crucial to creating a sing-along-able tune. The longer a vocal in one breath, the more likely we are to sing along.
- A greater number of pitches in the chorus hook. The more sounds there are, the more infectious a song becomes. Combining longer musical phrases and a hook over three different pitches was found to be key to sing-along success.
- Male vocalists. Singing along to a song may be a subconscious war cry, tapping into an inherent tribal part of our consciousness. Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs.
- Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort. This indicates high energy and purpose, particularly when combined with a smaller vocal range.

Dr Pawley and Dr Mullensiefen placed Queen's 1977 classic 'We are the Champions' at the top of their most sing-along-able list, making it more likely to get listeners joining in than any other song.

Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May said of the results: "Fabulous. So it's proved then? We truly are the champions. Science is a wonderful thing!"

'We are the Champions' is followed by 1970s disco favourite 'YMCA', by The Village People. Modern rock classic, The Automatic's 'Monster', takes fifth place.

Iwan Griffith of The Automatic said: "When we first wrote 'Monster' we knew it was a pretty catchy little beast. It's brilliant that it's now been scientifically confirmed, and to have written the fifth most sing-along-able song in the UK no less, feels like an epic achievement."

Dr Mullensiefen said: "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 synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.

"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. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune."

Top ten sing-along songs
1. 'We are the Champions', Queen (1977)
2. 'Y.M.C.A', The Village People (1978)
3. 'Fat Lip', Sum 41 (2001)
4. 'The Final Countdown', Europe (1986)
5. 'Monster', The Automatic (2006)
6. 'Ruby', The Kaiser Chiefs (2007)
7. 'I'm Always Here', Jimi Jamison (1996)
8. 'Brown Eyed Girl', Van Morrison (1967)
9. 'Teenage Dirtbag', Wheatus (2000)
10. 'Livin' on a Prayer', Bon Jovi (1986)

Dr Pawley and Dr Mullensiefen's study highlights how science and engineering fundamentals can touch every aspect of our lives and the diversity of research projects that can be undertaken within this field. They hope it will inspire young people to enter their own projects into the National Science & Engineering Competition at Open to 11-18 year olds, it's the perfect opportunity for young people to receive serious recognition for their big ideas and the chance to win a share of the 50,000 pound prize pot.

The finals of the National Science & Engineering Competition take place at The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair, the country's single biggest celebration of science and engineering for young people, held at The NEC, Birmingham from 15 to 17 March 2012.

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Peter Austin
Press & PR Manager
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Content last modified: 16 Aug 2010

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