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Everyday science

What makes the perfect song?

25 Nov 2014 James Dacey

By James Dacey

There was a telling moment early on at the event I attended last night when science writer Philip Ball was asked to name his “perfect song”. With a slightly bemused look, Ball picked a tune that I’m pretty sure few in the audience had heard of – “The Most Wanted Song”, which was co-written by a neuroscientist to incorporate the musical elements that people find most pleasing to the ear. Give the tune a listen and you’ll realise that it is a horrible saccharine track that you’ll quickly want to turn off. Of course, the point of the song – and Ball’s choice – was to ridicule the idea that you can create beautiful music with a formula.

Ball was part of a panel discussion at the Royal Opera House in London on “What makes the perfect song?”. He was joined by physicist-turned-opera singer Christine Rice and musicologist Maria Witek, and the event was chaired by the physicist, broadcaster and former pop star Brian Cox (by angela). While the panellists were unanimous in their belief that music is a complex emotional thing that cannot be fully explained by physics, they did have some fascinating insights into the science of song.

One of the recurring themes of the evening (the leitmotif, if you will) was the idea that great songs play with our expectations. Ball, who is the author of The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It, spoke about how some of the great melodies appear to “get away” with breaking the rules. To illustrate, he went over to a grand piano and played The Beatles’ classic hit “Eleanor Rigby”. This song contains what is known as an “octave jump” in its melody, meaning there are 12 semitones between consecutive notes. In more everyday language, this means that the melody surprises the listener by suddenly jumping to a much higher note. The same device appears in “Over the Rainbow”, the beautiful song written for the film The Wizard of Oz. Ball explained how these songs get away with it for a number of technical reasons, but mainly because their composers have an innate sense of pleasing melody.

Of course, melody is only one aspect of music. The panel also discussed the role of rhythm and how great grooves can also toy with our expectations. Witek, who is a researcher at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, spoke about how offbeat rhythms known as syncopation can influence our enjoyment of music. She has carried out a survey in which participants listened to funk drum riffs of varying degrees of syncopation and then rated the music in terms of how it made them want to move and how much pleasure they experienced. The outcome was a Goldilocks result – listeners preferred a moderate amount of syncopation, not too little, not too much. In this way, when people dance to syncopated rhythms, their bodies become part of the music as the “gaps” are filled by our jiving bodies. “We are the music,” Witek declared. For her “perfect song”, Witek chose “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson, a tune where the groove falls alternately on the on-beat and the off-beat.

Thankfully, the evening wasn’t just about talking. We were also treated to a few songs by Joe Stilgoe, a jazz pianist with a reputation for combing virtuoso performances with stage banter. Among the set was “Mack the Knife”, a jazz standard composed by Kurt Weill that appeals in part because of its simple repeating melody, which Ball said could “go on and on and on” and never get boring. When it comes to toying with our expectations, jazz is in some ways the ultimate musical style. Stilgoe spoke about how jazz versions of well-known songs introduce tension into the music. One device jazz musicians use is to invert melodies by beginning on notes other than the root note in a scale. In this way, the listener follows the familiar melody but is also surprised by the variation. The key to good jazz, Stilgoe quipped, is to experiment with melody in creative ways without “disappearing up your own backside”.

What Makes The Perfect Song? was held in association with the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World.

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