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Britain is a nation of shower singers. According to a recent survey we conducted, 89% of us like to belt out a song in the shower at least once a week. We sing all sorts, from Ed Sheeran to ABBA; from Queen to Bon Jovi.
But two-thirds of us prefer to belt out our favourite TV theme tunes and movie soundtracks. Our favourite TV themes are Friends, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Game of Thrones, and our favourite cinematic tunes are from Grease, Frozen and Dirty Dancing.
They’re all great TV shows and films, but what makes their music so catchy? Why are there some tunes we can’t resist singing along to?
Dr Kelly Jakubowski, a Research Assistant in the Department of Music at Durham University, has done a great deal of research into the phenomenon of “earworms” – melodies that stick in our minds and refuse to get out. She explained that certain kinds of tunes tend to be catchier than others.
“Research shows that songs are more likely to be catchy if they have a fast tempo and predictable patterns in pitch,” Dr Jakubowski explained.
“These features might also make a song easier to sing along to and remember spontaneously. It’s also been suggested that songs are easier to sing along to if they allow the singer to take breaths at regularly-spaced intervals.
“But there are many things that influence which songs stick in our heads, and which songs we’re likely to sing along to: there’s social context, how familiar a song is, and the amount of alcohol consumption as well!”
The songs that are most readily recalled – such as those from our favourite films and TV shows – are likely to be at the front of our minds while we shower, because it’s a space in which we can relax and express ourselves.
As Dr Jakubowski points out, it’s not all about the musical composition. These are iconic films and TV shows that have a major cultural influence. We know that showering can be a relaxing and surprisingly creative space – which is partly why singing in the shower can be good for your health – so it’s not surprising the films and TV shows we have the most fondness for are the ones that pop into our heads while we shower.
To find out what it is about the TV theme tunes and film soundtracks we find so catchy, we also spoke to Ben Chinery, a trumpeter with Argento Brass, and freelance Brass teacher. He explained that much of our connection to theme tunes is based on our emotional connection with the shows and films themselves:
“Themes tunes get lodged in our brains through repetition. As we watch the show again and again, our minds learn to associate that tune with the laugh we experience during the show. This gives us a little emotional lift every time we hear or recollect it.”
However, it’s not just the content of the shows and films that makes the music stick. Many popular soundtracks share common characteristics.
“There are several techniques composers use to make their music easier to identify with. The simplest of these is repetition. “Let it Go”, from Disney’s Frozen, repeats the line “let it go” 12 times during the three-minute song. It’s a three-note phrase, and it ends on a long note, making it easier for the listener to process. It’s easily logged within our long-term memory.
“Game of Thrones is similar. It repeats a four-note theme throughout. Although it changes key, the same memorable musical phrase is played over and over.”
Because we sing in the shower absent-mindedly, we’re more likely to opt for simple tunes that follow these patterns. These songs are memorable; they’re also easy to sing.
Other techniques mimic the features of day-to-day communication. Call-and-response, in which the first two bars of a four-bar phrase pose a “question”, with the second bars providing a response, is a common example.
“In our daily communication a question is posed with an upward inflection at the end. Naturally, this needs a descending passage to provide closure. This is the same in music – for example, the James Bond theme ‘Live and Let Die’. The music that follows that line in the song goes three notes up, another three notes up, and then three notes down. It’s a short musical interlude posing a question-question-answer structure, which helps the listener feel the phrase has ‘finished’.”
Would-be soundtrack composers can learn a lot from our survey results, explains Ben. Perhaps the most important lesson is to capture the audience’s attention quickly.
“All the theme tunes that topped the survey results capture the audience’s attention in the first five seconds. They do this using “hooks”. Take the opening guitar riff from Friends: it’s fast-paced, lively and unforgettable; many people will recognise it immediately.”
Through a combination of the content of the shows and the impeccably-crafted theme tunes, there are some pieces of music from films and TV shows that audiences have a deep emotional connection with. Inevitably, then, these tunes come to the fore when we’re in relaxed, expressive environments – when we’re belting out a song in the shower, for instance.
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