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Scientists unveil the secret behind sing-along-able pop songs

Queen, Drammenshallen, Norway, 1982. Photo: Helge Øverås

It’s the singer not the song

What makes a song so infectious that we want to warble and hum along time and again?

The answer lies in the power of science, according to a new study carried out by Dr Alisun Pawley for her PhD at the University of York and Dr Daniel Müllensiefen of Goldsmiths University of London. They have uncovered the properties that give certain songs the ‘sing-along-able’ factor, making them a sure-fire hit at parties and nightclubs.

Dr Pawley went under-cover monitoring the behaviour of thousands of people as they sang along to music in pubs and nightclubs across northern England. The idea came to her on a night out in Newcastle, watching the enthusiasm with which Geordie revellers would sing along to certain tunes and wondering if there was something that gave certain songs ‘singalongability’.

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

Dr Pawley said: “Nightlife in northern England was a unique and fertile ground to observe sing-along behaviour. There are not many situations in society today that can you find people jumping up and down, belting out a tune at the top of their lungs. Although this is a cultural study, its empirical approach and scientific methods allowed us to uncover patterns in human behaviour.”

After collecting data for over 1,100 occurrences of people singing along, Dr Müllensiefen analysed the information using advanced data mining techniques.

The researchers identified five core elements which trigger people’s inclination to sing, all aspects of the singer’s vocal performance:

  • the prominent use of a high chest voice
  • increased vocal effort
  • a male singer
  • a greater clarity of consonants
  • little use of vocal embellishments

Queen’s 1977 classic ‘We are the Champions’ tops the most sing-along-able list of songs occurring in their study.

They reveal the top ten were:

  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)

Queen star and astrophysicist Brian May said: “Fabulous. So it’s proved then? We truly are the champions. Science is a wonderful thing!”

Dr Pawley said: “Freddy Mercury’s vocal style typifies what we found inspires people to sing along - a full energy male voice, using a high chest voice and clearly pronounced words.”

James Frost of The Automatic, whose song ‘Monster’ appears fifth in the list, said: “When we first wrote ‘Monster’ we knew that 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 Müllensiefen 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 which can add effects too, makes 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.”

Dr Pawley and Dr Müllensiefen’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 www.thebigbangfair.co.uk/nsec

Easingwold School pupil Emily Dowling, aged 15, has won a place in the finals with an investigation into preventing children with Osteogenesis Imperfecta – a disease which makes human bones incredibly fragile – being incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from child abuse. Emily worked with the University of York as part of her research into the disease. 

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. Schools and families in York can register online for free tickets to the Big Bang Fair at www.thebigbangfair.co.uk.