Category Archives: melody

Catchiness in Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “popular music” originated with songs emanating from Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley and competing publishers in other major American cities. From the 1880s to the early twentieth century, these mass produced songs captured the ears and hearts of American consumers. Almost as soon as the tunes penetrated the market, another term was coined: “catchy.” An ad for A. G. Henderson’s “No More Parting, Norah Darling” (1889) hypes the song’s “easy, sweet, and catchy melody, set to pretty and effective words. A very striking and well-arranged chorus. Sing this song ONCE, and the air will haunt you.” A review of “My Jenny’s Shelling Peas” (1895), by Chicago music publisher S. W. Straub, opines: “It has an interesting story, and has a beautiful, catchy melody with a superb chorus. It will become very popular, we predict.”

Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths sold thousands of songs to fast-pace publishers, who, in turn, fed sheet music to hungry household pianos. As John Shepherd writes in his definitive book, Tin Pan Alley, “The faster the songs…could be produced, the more money there was to be made.” One consequence of this assembly line approach was that “catchiness” became the norm, rather than a quality reserved for especially well-crafted melodies. Originality fell victim to the rapid-fire ethos. For expedience, melodists turned to modifying and piecing together bits of pre-existing melodies. Lyricists returned again and again to well-worn themes and clichés. Of course, a legitimately clever hit occasionally rose above the homogenous whole. But, for the most part, every song possessed some catchiness by virtue of sharing variations of the same rhythms, verse-chorus forms, melodic phrases, and sentiments. To this day, recycling of this kind is a defining aspect of popular music.

A handful of scientific papers have sought a formula for musical catchiness. These include a study of the UK’s top-ten sing-along songs and an analysis of musical “hooks” (memorable musical fragments). These studies, which investigate why some recordings are seemingly catchier than others, tend to leave out salient factors, such as radio play and promotion from the music industry. Lesser-known or overlooked songs often have the same features, but lack the popularizing platforms.

Rather than tracing catchiness to a unique trait or set of traits, it is perhaps better to think of catchiness as a synonym for “familiar,” or even “familiar before it is ever heard.” Catchy songs trigger musical information already stored in the brain. Other elements, such as a magnetic performance or generational sentiment, certainly play a role. But a truly catchy melody—one that resonates beyond a recording or performer—requires high levels of musical déjà vu. Otherwise, it won’t catch hold of the listener.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Evolution of Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest rudiments of musical expression were most likely vocal. This basic premise connects diverse speculations about music’s origins. Whether music—broadly defined as structured, controlled, and purposeful sound—began with grunts of aggression, wails of pain, mating howls, or infant-directed communication, the vocal instrument was the source from which it sprang. Despite the lack of records stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, speculative musicologists have sketched cursory evolutions of vocal music. According to Alfred Einstein, the eon-spanning process had three stages: pathogenic (emotion-born), logogenic (language-born), and melogenic (melody-born). This hypothesis, presented in his 1954 essay “Word and Music,” is unique for its qualitative editorializing. In Einstein’s view, the combination of voice and music becomes increasingly problematic as the stages unfold.

The first stage, pathogenic music, represents the “starkest expression of pure emotion.” Einstein viewed the spontaneous, wordless tones of so-called “primitives” as the most pristine type of vocal music. Beyond romanticizing the “noble savage,” he argued that “the meaningful word weakens rather than strengthens such pure expression, since convention tends to attenuate it.” The union of word and music pollutes the original purity.

The degrading effect is less pronounced in stage two: logogenic music. In word-born song, melodic shape, movement, phrasing, and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text, rather than a consistent beat or meter. It is a form of musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—wherein accents and inflections are stressed through unobtrusive, arhythmic, word-serving melodic figures. Such is the mode of Greek epic poetry, Gregorian plainchant, and Jewish scriptural cantillation. Logogenic music has its own disadvantage—namely, the neutralizing of emotion. Because the music serves the text with formulaic motives (described by Einstein as a “minimum of music”), the same sounds are invariably used to transmit texts of varying thematic and emotional content. In this sense, it is the opposite of pathogenic vocalizing.

The third stage is song proper: a short poem or set of words fitted to a metrical tune. By and large, musical considerations, like rhythm and melody, outweigh textual concerns. Although songs often grow from or reflect upon emotional states, the rules of style and form tend to restrain raw feelings. The structure limits the amount of syllables available, and the measured phrases reduce word options. The result is filtered sentiment—a contrast to both unfettered pathogenic music and text-first logogenic music.

Without doubt, Einstein’s scheme has its weaknesses. Not only is the evolution of song non-linear (all three forms still exist today), but blending is also not uncommon. For instance, blues singing, which adheres to highly conventional forms, is known for its “pure emotion.” Within a strict melogenic framework, short phrases and repeated words convey rich layers of emotional content. Even so, Einstein’s three-stage outline raises awareness of the potential impediments of the various types of vocal music. Knowledge of these built-in barriers can help the performer or songwriter transcend them in their own musical quests.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause identifies two categories of organism-derived sounds: biophony, sounds created by non-human animals, and anthrophony, sounds produced by human beings. Some of these sounds are “musical” in the inclusive sense of displaying structured and intentional patterns that unfold over time. Precisely which sounds fit under this broad definition is debatable. However, on a basic level, we are intuitively attentive to musical sounds around us, both creaturely and human-made. What is perhaps less obvious—and more fundamental—is the extent to which our sense of music is physiologically derived.

This anthrogenic (human-born) appreciation centers on two essential musical elements: rhythm and melody. Both originate with inborn “instruments.” Heartbeats and breathing lay the foundations of rhythm. The voice sets the template for melody. As individuals mature and cultures progress, these internal mechanisms are translated into external instruments, which are themselves imitations and expansions of the organ-instruments within.

Rhythmic awareness begins in the womb. The underlying neural structures of hearing develop early in utero. By the end of the third trimester, a baby can distinguish a wide range of frequencies. This includes her own heart rate, which beats 120 to 160 times per minute, and her mother’s, which beats 60 to 80 times per minute. When the infant is born, the tempo of breathing is added to the mix. As the child develops, rhythmic exposure and experimentation are diversified: rocking, clapping, banging, shaking, walking, stomping, dancing. It is no coincidence that excited music is fast-paced, mimicking quick breaths and heartbeats, while relaxed music is slow-paced, mimicking calm breaths and heartbeats. Techno, dirges, marches, meditations, and all manner of musical styles play off these natural rhythms.

Similarly with melody. The mother’s voice, which also resonates in the womb, is our first introduction to melodic patterns. Newborns show a preference for music (organized sound) over noise (confused sound), and for vocal music over instruments. Mothers instinctively communicate through “motherese”—high-pitched, sliding, infant-directed intonations—which, through exaggeration, reinforces characteristics of the native language. The infant, in turn, babbles in language-patterned speech-song long before she can form words. These verbal and verbal-imitative vocables set the framework of melody, both sung and instrumental. In every culture, melody is deeply rooted in the phrasing, inflections, and articulations of the spoken vernacular.

We cannot escape the physiological/anthrogenic basis of music perception and production. Rhythmic and melodic sense are born with us. Our hearts, breath, and voice invariably inform which sounds—human and non-human—we hear as music, and which ones we do not.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Music of the Squares

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Humans are vertically symmetrical beings. The skeleton provides scaffolding for mirror images on either side of an invisible divide. In both body and face, the average person exhibits an essentially balanced figure: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and so on. And the more evenly proportioned, the better: cultures throughout the world view exceptionally symmetrical faces as the most beautiful. (This facial preference is also observed in some non-human animals, including various insects and birds.) Contrastingly, the more excessive the deviation, the more unattractive a face is thought to be. In global myths and popular culture, exaggerated asymmetry is a common feature of monstrous creatures.

Attraction to symmetry in conspecifics has a biological basis. Symmetry is an indicator of fitness: animals that are more properly developed have more symmetry in the body and face. A sound exterior is an indication of a sound interior. (Even the pheromones of highly symmetrical men are more attractive to women than those of less symmetrical men.) Intuitive detection of biological fitness underlies the more general association of symmetry with sturdiness, strength, and security.

In the wide world of art, symmetry is fundamental in works ranging from the sculptures of ancient Greece to the architecture of Imperial China to the poetry of Dr. Seuss. Musically, the desire for balance is most clearly represented in four-bar phrasing, which has dominated Western music since at least the Classical period.

Almost every folk, popular, and art melody consists of four-measure phrases grouped with other four-measure phrases (usually in eight- to sixteen-bar form). This is true of melodies as varied as “Yankee Doodle,” “Ode to Joy,” “Kalinka,” “Hava Nagila,” and “Wrecking Ball.” Virtually any song that springs to mind fits into this square structure. Indeed, four-bar patterns are so natural that, even when composers expand the phrasing with additional bars or extra beats between phrases, they typically even them out through repetition or tagged on measures.

The ubiquity of four-square melodies is not merely a product of collective cultural conditioning. Rather, it shares organic roots with the biological affinity for symmetry. Just as a balanced figure signals strength and reliability, so does a symmetrical tune evoke comfort and stability. The limited appeal of modernist music, which among other things rejects conventional phrasing, further emphasizes this point. Our ears are endlessly pleased by four-bar patterns. To update a Shakespearian phrase: “But hark, what music? . . . The music of the squares. . . Most heavenly music!”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Hard (Melodic) Cases Make Bad (Melodic) Law

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.

Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, Cage’s 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)

The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains in tact.

“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.