Hooked on Music: the science of the musical ‘hook’

We all know a catchy tune when we hear one, with its repetitive, attention grabbing chorus that you just can’t get out of your head. Those who work in the music industry call this the ‘hook’, and it’s what all musicians strive for when they’re trying to write a hit song. But what is it exactly that makes a hook particularly successful?

Hit songs are often the ones that are the most memorable, and can often be recalled many years later on hearing just a few opening chords. This apparent connection between popular music and memory is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that our ability to recall autobiographical memories is strongest when the memories are associated with a popular song which we may have heard at the time (e.g. Krumhansl & Zupnick, 2013).

Such effects may be attributed to the fact that listening to music activates multiple areas of the brain at once. In research carried out at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, Dr. Vinoo Alluri and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI–which traces blood flow to measure levels of activity in different areas of the brain) to map the brains of participants whilst they listened to a piece of Argentinian tango music. Dr. Vinoo Alluri found that the music not only activated the areas of the participants brains which process sound, but also the areas responsible for processing emotions, movement and creativity.

Areas of the brain activated by music: http://sciencenordic.com/how-music-touches-brain
Areas of the brain activated by music: http://sciencenordic.com/how-music-touches-brain

But what is it, in particular, that makes one song more memorable than another? What is it that makes a song a hit? Dr John Ashley Burgoyne and Professor Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam hope to find out. To help them, they have teamed up with The Museum of Science and Industry to run a citizen science project called Hooked on Music as part of the Manchester Science Festival (23rd Oct-2nd Nov 2014).

 Citizen Science projects are an innovative way for scientists to collect large amounts of data whilst also allowing wide scale public participation in scientific research. The Hooked on Music project does this by inviting users to take part in a number of online games. Depending on their taste (or age!) participants can select music from any decade (from 40s/50s, right up to the present day). They can then test their recognition and recall of the most popular songs from that decade, and decide on the catchiest segments of individual songs. The data collected will be used to help better understand the hook that helps to firmly embed certain songs in our memory.

Understanding what makes a song memorable has applications beyond making a hit. By exploiting the powerful connection between music and memory and developing our understanding of what properties of particular songs have the strongest effect, therapies are being developed to help those suffering with memory difficulties caused by, for example, traumatic brain injuries and dementia. Charities such as Playlist for Life and Music & Memory encourage people to provide family members suffering from dementia with mp3 players containing playlists of songs that have been meaningful throughout that person’s life. The premise is that music will be a powerful trigger for memories that will bring familiarity and comfort and encourage interaction with other family members.

Post By: Catherine Mcguire

 To find out more about Hooked on Music or to take part visit http://www.hookedonmusic.org.uk.