A new scientific study—designed to unlock the secrets of what makes music memorable—has highlighted the importance of getting your intro right in terms of its length and catchy melodic hook.
If you’re aiming to write a song with commercial potential, it’s important to understand how little time you have to attract the listener’s attention at the beginning of the song.
A short dynamic intro that leads quickly into the first verse is often the key to pulling the listener in.
An analysis of today’s hit songs shows that many intros are typically either four bars or eight bars long and, on average, last for about 10 seconds.
However, a recent citizen science experiment—developed by the UK’s Museum of Science and Industry (Mosi)—suggests that songwriters may have even less time than that to catch the listener’s ear
Less than five seconds, in fact.
The study revealed that The Spice Girls’ 1996 hit, ‘Wannabe’, has the catchiest and most memorable intro in UK chart history. Music fans participating in the online experiment were able to recognize the song in just 2.3 seconds, compared with an average of five seconds for other songs.
Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo No. 5’ was in second place (identified within an average of 2.48 seconds), while Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was third (with an average time of 2.62 seconds). Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance’ was fourth.
The research was based on an online interactive game, called Hooked on Music. People who played the game were asked if they recognized a song which was randomly selected from more than 1,000 clips of best-selling songs from the 1940s through to the present day. The results were based on data collected from more than 12,000 participants.
The Hooked on Music concept was created by computational musicologist Dr. Ashley Burgoyne and Professor Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Dr. Burgoyne told BBC News: “I work within a group that studies music cognition in general – any way in which the brain processes music – and we were particularly interested in music and memory and why exactly it is that certain pieces of music stay in your memory for such a long time.”
He added: “You may only hear something a couple of times yet 10 years later you immediately realize that you have heard it before. Yet other songs, even if you have heard them a lot, do not have this effect.
“We wanted to see if it was possible to identify whether the most memorable pieces of music shared particular characteristics.”
This, said Dr. Burgoyne, included scientifically testing different hypotheses about the musical hook, including the musical features that make something catchy and the importance of very strong melodic hooks.
The new study’s results show that, from a commercial point of view, it’s a mistake to believe that the perfect way to set the stage for your first verse is to tease the listener with a long, intricate intro designed to create a feeling of anticipation.
An intro that is too long and self-indulgent will simply make the song harder for people to remember. Such an intro is unlikely to make listeners sit up and take notice. It will also take up valuable time and slow down the listener’s journey to the all-important first chorus.
Not all songs require an instrumental intro, of course. Some songs may open with the chorus, a solo vocal, or go straight into the first verse. But, if you feel your song needs an intro, make sure it is memorable and impactful by approaching it in exactly the same way as writing a catchy, melodic hook for your chorus.
Top 10 Catchiest Intros:
1. Spice Girls – ‘Wannabe’
2. Lou Bega – ‘Mambo No. 5’
3. Survivor – ‘Eye Of The Tiger’
4. Lady Gaga – ‘Just Dance’
5. ABBA – ‘SOS’
6. Roy Orbison – ‘Pretty Woman’
7. Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’
8. Whitney Houston – ‘I Will Always Love You’
9. The Human League – ‘Don’t You Want Me’
10. Aerosmith – ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’
(Source: Hooked on Music experiment/Mosi)
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“How [Not] To Write A Hit Song! – 101 Common Mistakes To Avoid If You Want Songwriting Success” is available from Amazon as a US paperback, UK paperback and as an eBook from Amazon’s Kindle Store, Apple’s iTunes Store (Books/Arts & Entertainment/Music), Barnes & Noble’s Nook store, and from KoboBooks.
“The good news is that melody is back in pop music again,” Michael Bolton told Billboard magazine in a recent interview.
The blue-eyed soul singer-songwriter added: “There’s a lot of melody in music now – right across the board from hip-hop to country, and that’s where I’m the most comfortable. It’s made me roll up my sleeve and get on the phone to my manager and publishers and say ‘I feel like going on a writing run for the next few months’.”
As a result, said Bolton, he is planning to work with some of today’s biggest contemporary songwriters on a new album. He has already collaborated with Lady Gaga and Ne-Yo in recent years, but he won’t reveal the names of his new ‘crew’ just yet. However, he calls them “the new hot guns”.
As experienced songwriters know, no matter which music genre you’re writing for—whether it’s pop, rock, country, R&B or any other style—the melody line is second only to the title as the most important part of a song.
The late Robin Gibb once explained that the Bee Gees always made sure they had a great melody before they started writing the lyrics. “The principle is to let the melody dictate the flow of the lyrics,” he said.
After all, the melody is the first thing that listeners catch when they hear a song for the first time. If they like the tune, they’re more likely to want to start listening to the words. That’s why melodies need good hooks, and why a strong and memorable melody is the chief reason why most songs become successful.
As the great Irving Berlin once remarked: “It’s the lyric that makes a song a hit, but the tune is what makes it last.”
Do you agree with Michael Bolton that melody is back in pop music again? Or do you feel that melody never went away in the first place, especially in mainstream pop?
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“How [Not] To Write A Hit Song! – 101 Common Mistakes To Avoid If You Want Songwriting Success” is available from Amazon as a paperback, or as an eBook from Amazon’s Kindle Store, Apple’s iTunes Store (Books/Arts & Entertainment/Music) and Barnes & Noble’s Nook store.
Let’s be clear, songwriting is not easy. And writing hit songs is even harder. As Jimmy Webb (pictured) once observed: “Songwriting is hell on Earth. If it isn’t, then you’re doing it wrong.”
We’ve all heard about people who finished a song in the time it takes to boil an egg and it went on to earn a fortune. Country legend Hank Williams used to say: “If a song can’t be written in 20 minutes, it ain’t worth writing”. Lady Gaga wrote her first single ‘Just Dance’ in 10 minutes—the same length of time it took the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston to write the Barry Manilow classic ‘I Write the Songs’.
The truly great songwriters just make it look easy.
In reality, though, they have to put in hours and hours of hard work—making many mistakes along the way—in order to hone their talent and achieve their greatness. Diane Warren, one of the most successful female songwriters of all time, spent 20 years writing six days a week, 10-12 hours a day before she felt she could finally take the occasional weekend off!
The great Sammy Cahn put it like this: “Writing a song can be agony or ecstasy. It can take half an hour or half a year.”
That’s why it’s important to understand that hit songwriting is a process. It’s an art and a craft.
The initial spark that ignites your song idea is a gift. From then on, it’s all about hard work.
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Also available from Apple’s iTunes Store (Books/Arts & Entertainment/Music).