What makes a tune unforgettable?

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This is a question that everyone from hard-core music theorists to folk chatting down the pub have had a go at over the years. You already have your own opinion on the answer. This post isn’t intended to change your mind, but simply to play with a few ideas to see how they resonate with your experience of memorable melodies.

The ideas come from a book called Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath It is a splendidly interesting book that analyses the common characteristics of memorable ideas, and anyone who writes or teaches (or advertises or attends job interviews) would find it useful. I was revisiting their list the other day and suddenly wondered if the characteristics also apply to musical ideas. This post attempts to answer that question.

So the key features of a sticky idea, whether it be an ad campaign, best-selling novel or an urban myth, are that it is:

  • Simple: there is a clear core to the idea that is easily identified
  • Unexpected: surprising is more memorable than predictable
  • Concrete: it deals with the stuff of real life, not abstract ideas
  • Credible: something makes us believe it (authority of the teller, evidence to back it up)
  • Emotional: it’s something we can care about
  • Story: it tells of people and situations we can relate to, and gives a narrative to follow

So how well do these characteristics apply to music?

  1. Simple. Yes, in general simple tunes are more easily memorable than complex ones. This is one of the reasons why I can remember the opening of the ‘Et Exultavit’ from Bach’s Magnificat more easily than the continuation: short, obviously question+answer phrases as opposed to a long string of semiquavers. Clearly, some tunes are so simple as to be banal. But let’s note, this list isn’t about musical quality so much as about the capacity for a melody to get stuck in your head. Ever had an irritatingly trite tune stay with you for 3 days at a time?
  2. Unexpected. This suggests that the absolutely predictable tune is less sticky than one with a slight twist. Certainly Leonard Meyer would have agreed with that. And it’s probably why Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ is a more perennial Yuletide favourite than Cliff Richards’ ‘Christmas Time’. That dirty dive off to flat III in the chorus gives it a much more distinctive profile.
  3. Concrete. This one had me stumped for a while – music may be a very concrete medium (physicality of sound) or very abstract (non-referential content) depending on your philosophical position. But how can some tunes be more concrete than others? Then I remembered that an awful lot of melodies have lyrics. My guess is that many people find more tunes from songs sloshing round their heads as a matter of course than tunes from instrumental music, and that the main exceptions to this are instrumentalists. And the content of the lyrics can of course be more or less concrete. Even more memorable than the opening of Bach’s ‘Et Exultavit’ is the chorus to ‘Don’t sit under the apple tree’.
  4. Credible. No, not sure that this one is relevant at all, even if you just look at lyrics. ‘We all live in a yellow submarine’ is insanely memorable (well, it’s simple and surprising for a start) but I don’t believe it for a minute. On the other hand, if it had been released by someone less respected than the Beatles, would it have gained the same grip on our imaginations?
  5. Emotional. Now, this music is good at. Of course, if you want to pinpoint how exactly it is that music contains and conveys emotion, you’re in for a pretty heavy-weight theoretical job. But at the simple experiential level, I think it’s safe to say that the melodies we respond to emotionally do tend to be the ones that stay with us more.
  6. Story. This also, I suggest, music is good at. And I’m not talking about lyrics here, but about melodic structure. A sticky tune takes us on a journey. There’ll be long arching trajectories that are then contrasted short repeated phrases; there’ll be recognisable motifs that appear at the start, then get repeated at different pitches, go missing, then re-appear at the end; there’ll be a sense of ‘home’ (melodically and/or harmonically) where the tune departs from and returns to. The narrative shape of a tune is the thing that hooks us in and makes us mentally sing along - and then keep singing.

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