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Science & Technology

How Catchy Songs Lodge Their Hooks In Your Ears

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANNABE")

SPICE GIRLS: Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. So tell me what you want, what you really, really want.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, do you know the song? Can you sing along even? Come on, admit it. Maybe you even like the song "Wannabe" by the Spice Girls. The song probably sticks in your head for the rest of the day. You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANNABE")

SPICE GIRLS: I wanna really, really, really, really, wanna zig a zig ah.

MARTIN: Did you know there's a reason certain songs burrow their way into our subconscious? Some scientists in Europe conducted an experiment to try to figure out why this is the case. Ashley Burgoyne is one of them. He's with the University of Amsterdam, and he worked with the Museum of Science and Industry in England on this project. He joins me now. Welcome to the show.

ASHLEY BURGOYNE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So how did the experiment work?

BURGOYNE: So what happens is that you hear a fragment of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE OF THE TIGER")

BURGOYNE: And you're asked, do you know the song or not? If you say no, you get a new song. If you say yes, then all of a sudden the sound mutes. You're asked to sing-along in your head for four seconds, and then the music comes back up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE OF THE TIGER")

SURVIVOR: (Singing) Rising up, back on the street. Did my time, took my chances.

BURGOYNE: Sometimes it comes back up in the right place, so exactly four seconds after you guessed. Sometimes it's just a little bit offset. And the way you prove that you really recognize the song is by answering the question correctly - did the music come back in the right place?

MARTIN: So what do you want to do with this information?

BURGOYNE: Well, the first thing is to test all of these hypotheses and ideas that have been out there, both in the scientific literature and in the songwriting community, about what really does make a song catchy. By having these very precise measures of, OK, it takes 2.29 seconds to recognize the hook of "Wannabe," we can then compare that with computerized, featurized version of hypotheses like, say, a large leap in the melody makes it memorable, and see whether that's really true.

Longer term, we're hoping that if we can get a better understanding of how catchy music works, it's really a description of the musical memory. And we know that in the case of patients with memory loss, say dementia or Alzheimer's, that finding the right piece of music can really revive one of these patients. But the challenge is what is the best piece of music? And with a better understanding of the musical memory, we're hoping that we can find those pieces of music faster.

MARTIN: What's your favorite song on the top 10 list?

BURGOYNE: I always liked "Wannabe." I got a little sick of it for a while, but it made me smile when I saw it come out on the list again. And I have to confess the same thing for "Mambo No. 5.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO NO. 5")

LOU BEGA: (Singing) A little bit of Monica in my life. A little bit of Erica by my side. A little bit of...

MARTIN: Ashley Burgoyne, thank you so much for talking with us.

BURGOYNE: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: We want to know what song you think is the catchiest. You can join the conversation on our Facebook page, NPR Weekend Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMBO NO. 5")

BEGA: A little bit of Jessica, here I am. A little bit of you makes me your man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.