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” (1892), 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.
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