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Will Anyone Care About "Uptown Funk" and "Take Me To Church" in 20 Years?

We spoke to a scientist who explained why you'll be singing that old Chris Brown song in 2025.
April 22, 2015, 9:59am

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

When I was 12 years old, I got Junior Senior’s pop-funk hit “Move Your Feet” irremovably stuck in my head. After a few weeks, I didn’t even know if I liked it anymore, only that it was a part of me. A parasitic melody that was living, uninvited, somewhere in my brain. Eventually it faded, but at a party last year it re-entered my life. Someone had dug it up on YouTube in a desperate attempt to parade their #tbt credentials, and was blasting it out in the living room. I had a bewildering moment: “I know this. Fuck, what is this? E-e-e-everybody… MOVE YOUR FEET AND FEEL UNITED!”

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What I experienced on that fateful night is what cognitive musicologist Dr. John Ashley Burgoyne spends his life investigating: recognition in music. The moment you hear a song that plagued the radio ten summers earlier, and the lyrics fall subconconsciosly from your mouth, dragging up memories and feelings you never knew you still had. These are the songs with true catchiness, the ear-worms with longevity, the enduring numbers you never forget. You see it happening right now in the charts, with songs like "Take Me To Church" by Hozier, ones that seize the public and just refuse to exit the top ten. But what exactly makes them so unforgettable?

Dr Burgoyne has mounted a couple of studies on this theme. Last year his team, in tandem with the Manchester Science Festival and the Museum of Science and Industry, launched Hooked on Music, an online game that set about collecting a comprehensive list of the songs that the general public find the most infectious. You can still play the game here, but the initial results released last year revealed some interesting truths about which tunes our brains cling on to. In the UK the catchiest song was revealed as the Spice Girl’s “Wannabe”, pipping Lou Bega’s “Mambo No.5” to the top spot. Other tracks in the top ten included Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”.

But these are stonewall, evergreen classics. You'd expect them. They have had years to plant their feet. But, are there any songs out right now that will still be rattling around your brain in 20 years time? We caught up with Dr Burgoyne to test his expertise on tracks from Kendrick Lamar, Mark Ronson, Hozier, and Chris Brown, and try to figure out what exactly makes a song timelessly "catchy."

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Noisey: Thanks for talking to us Dr Burgoyne. So what is it you do exactly?
Dr Burgoyne: I’m a researcher but it’s probably easier to think of me as a music statistician—I think about music in terms of data which is relatively new to the field of musicology. My particular focus right now is understanding the musical features that are responsible for long-term memory.

How did your last experiment, Hooked on Music, work?
The key was to make a strictly musical test. A lot of people are very bad at music trivia, they might love music but they don’t know the names of the artists or the songs very well, even though they do in fact know the song. We wanted to test recognition and reaction time, so we wanted people to hit the button as soon as they thought “yes, I recognize this song,” forget who it's by or when it was written. That's just a distraction.

You are all Lou Bega needs for him to be your man.

Why is that a distraction for your test?
Because marketing and cultural factors have a huge impact on how well remembered a song is. One of the canonical examples in the UK would be Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” which took on a huge significance after the death of Diana. But that is completely outside of the musical content itself, so we designed Hooked on Music to ignore all that.

"Wannabe” by Spice Girls came out on top in your research. What has made it stick in our heads for so long—beyond it being a certified banger?
It’s the most melodic parts of these songs that are the most memorable. In “Wannabe” it isn’t that “so tell me what you want” intro that is the most recognizable part. It’s the “if you wanna be my lover” part. The other bits are still recognizable, but within the best of the best it is the melodies that stick. The extent to which that just dominated everything was a real surprise. It’s not a joke or a metaphor, you really do have to write a catchy tune if you want your song to be remembered. The weird thing is, if you look at the top ten catchiest songs from our study, every one of the first six comes from a different decade. Which suggests we haven’t become better at writing enduring music, or gotten worse.

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We sent you some tracks before the interview to mull over. Let’s start with Hozier’s “Take Me To Church”.
So this is a classic hook. It is a good example of a classically catchy tune. Although “Take me to Church” is also a good example of the limitations of what we are trying to do, because I think one of the main reasons the song is so memorable is the video. It is a surprising video for the genre, artist and lyrics. It is completely unexpected, so that contributes to why the song has become memorable.

True. It was actually the most streamed song of 2014 that one. Anyway, this is my personal favorite, Kendrick Lamar's “King Kunta.”
This is not a song I would predict to have a lot of long-term staying power, at least not in terms of memorability. This is in part down to the genre. With rap you historically don’t expect melodies as much. I wouldn’t expect this song to be particularly easy to recognize a decade from now.

Bummer. Ok, how about “Uptown Funk”?
This is an interesting one, because while a lot of the melody is sung, the hook is not. It is another one where if I had to make my prediction, I’m not sure that ten years from now it will still be memorable. The hook is that trumpet drop, whereas the words “Uptown Funk” just sort of disappear. Don’t forget, there is a difference between what is catchy right now, and what will be catchy ten years from now.

How does Chris Brown and Tyga’s “Ayo” get on?
I think this one is very interesting, because yes it is rap, but you have a hook too, and it is a melodic hook. One that repeats a lot. Our research suggests that this might be one that is a lot easier to sing along to ten years from now. The melodic hook is what helps people remember the song. This is by far the most interesting song you've sent, a more savvy piece of music than people probably realize.

The thought of Chris Brown having more longevity than Kendrick Lamar is concerning me, but alright. What about “Prayer in C”?
It is very melodic and repetitive, but there is something about it that just doesn’t strike me as lasting. There is something missing. My own feeling is that the melodic kernel that repeats doesn’t have much range. It is a little too simple. It is airing a bit too much on being too simple and too repetitive.

So if you had to rate the songs we sent you one to five in terms of longevity, what would you say?
“Take me to Church” will be the most memorable, then “Ayo.” “King Kunta” will be the hardest to remember.

Poor Kendrick.
Just because a song is good doesn’t mean it is catchy.

Very true. So, what are the aims of your study now you've figured out how much we all love the Spice Girls?
Well, there is research in the music therapy community that shows, if you can find a personalized playlist, say, for a patient suffering from dementia it can have a very nice effect. The challenge is, how do you make that playlist? In many cases these patients have lost the ability to tell you what their favorite music is. Some people have family members who can work with the care teams to piece together a playlist, which is fine, but the number of people in care facilities who are never visited by anyone and don’t have any family, is heartbreakingly high. If we can make a version of the game we created that a care-giver could use, they might be able to figure out what music the patient responds to best.

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