Dr Daniel Müllensiefen on sing-along-able tunes
We are the Champions, the 1977 classic from Queen has been named as the most sing-along-able song by scientists, that’s right science has got musical
Music isn’t normally something we would consider to be scientific, but scientists have been probing which scientific properties make a tune sing-along-able. Analysis by researchers from Goldsmiths University London identified four core elements which trigger people’s inclination to sing.
The longer and more detailed the musical phrases, the more likely we are to sing-along, plus a greater number of pitches in the chorus’s hook, the more infectious a song becomes. We’re also likely to sing-along to male voices – a subconscious war cry the researchers suggest – and the more energy and purpose the singer puts in, the more we like the song.
We are the Champions hit the top spot with Queen star and astrophysicist Brian May commenting: “So it’s proved then? We truly are the champions. Science is a wonderful thing!”
This month we caught up with Dr Daniel Müllensiefen, a musicology expert, to find out how the research was conducted.
How can music be scientific and why research the most sing-along-able song?
Music isn't science but art. But we can study music (and many other artistic forms of expression) scientifically. This can tell us a lot about how the human mind and brain works in general. Music is an auditory stimulus but it is non-verbal and can be described mainly in terms of its syntax as opposed to semantics. This makes it a perfect vehicle to study, for example, principles of statistical learning in the lab.
Singing along to music in a night club is a very cultural activity which at first appears to be quite an erratic behaviour and seems to be mainly governed by coincidental events. One goal of this study that Alisun Pawley from the University of York and I just finished was to find out whether we can find any patterns and regularities in sing-along behaviour using powerful analysis techniques from modern machine learning. And indeed we were able to explain roughly 65% of the variance in the data we collected.
What was involved in this unusual research?
Alisun carried out an under-cover data collection in night clubs across the North of England recoding for each song played the proportion of people singing along to it. She then did a musical analysis of a large subset of songs regarding the vocal performance on the recording as well as the structure of the songs. I then helped with the statistical analysis of the sing-along field data using a small number of contextual variables as well as larger number of musical features.
So what exactly makes a song sing-along-able?
It's mainly the singer and not the song. If a male singer uses his high chest voice, pronounces the consonants of the lyrics clearly and puts a lot of vocal effort into his performance and if the tune has little vocal embellishment but uses some melodic variation in the hook, then you have a high chance of observing people singing along, especially if it is late at night, if it is a weekend and if the song has been in high up in the UK charts at some point.
Were you surprised We are the Champions was the most sing-along-able song?
Not really, it ticks almost all the boxes from above.
Tell us about your day job at Goldsmiths – what’s your role here?
I'm a music psychologist and co-director of the MSc programme in Music, Mind and Brain (http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/msc-music-mind-brain), a very unique course that looks at music psychology and the neuroscience of music. My speciality is the computational study of musical structure and how it affects the human mind and behaviour. I'm also Scientist in Residence with the advertising agency DDB UK (e.g. http://www.ddb.com/ddblogs/creativity/you-are-what-you-hear.html) and advise them on the psychology of advertising in general and the role of music in particular.
Top 10 sing-along-able songs:
- We are the Champions – Queen
- YMCA – The Village People
- Fat Lip – Sum 41
- The Final Countdown – Europe
- Monster – The Automatic
- Ruby – The Kaiser Chiefs
- I’m Always Here – Jimi Jamison
- Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
- Teenage Dirtbag - Wheatus
- Livin’ on a Prayer - Bon Jovi