The top 20 catchiest songs of all time, according to science

By | November 3, 2014


A year-long survey by the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester has revealed the top 10 most persistent earworms — with the Spice Girls topping the list.

Eric Mutrie, CC BY 2.0

The catchiest song of all time has been revealed, and it ought to surprise absolutely no one. When it comes to recognisability, Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” is number one, with users taking, on average, just 2.29 seconds to pick the song.

The result is part of a year-long study, conducted by the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, UK. Users were directed to a special website where they could play an online game calledHooked on Music, which contained clips from 1,000 hit songs from the past 70 years — the top selling 40 tracks of each decade since the 1940s.

There were four modes: Recognise that Tune, where users had to hum along with the track, continuing when the sound dropped out and gauging whether they were still in time when the sound resumed; What’s the Hook, where users had to listen to two different clips from the same song and choose which clip was catchier; Time Trial, where users had to recognise as many songs as possible in three minutes; and In a Row, where users had to recognise as many songs in a row as they could.

The game collected data from over 12,000 people, who, on average, found Wannabe the most recognisable song. Lou Bega’s Mambo No 5 came in second at 2.48 seconds, with Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger coming in third at 2.62 seconds. The average overall time it took to recognise a clip was 5 seconds.

“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,” University of Amsterdam computational musicologist and designer of the survey Dr Ashley Burgoyne told the BBC.

“You may only hear something a couple of times yet 10 years later you immediately realise that you have heard it before. Yet other songs, even if you have heard them a lot, do not have this effect.”

The next step in the study will be examining the musical features that make a song “catchy”; so far, Dr Burgoyne believes that very strong melodic hooks play a key role, although that is merely an observation and further study is required.

From there, the team plans to channel the research into something a little more serious.

“If we have a better understanding of how the musical memory works, we are hopeful that we can move into research on people with dementia,” Dr Burgoyne said.

“There has already been some research that shows that if you can find the right piece of music, something that had a very strong meaning, playing that piece of music can be very therapeutic. But the challenge is figuring out what is the best piece of music.”

Here is the full list of the top 20 catchiest songs of all time:

  1. Spice Girls – Wannabe: 2.29 seconds
  2. Lou Bega – Mambo No 5: 2.48 seconds
  3. Survivor – Eye of the Tiger: 2.62 seconds
  4. Lady Gaga – Just Dance: 2.66 seconds
  5. ABBA – SOS: 2.73 seconds
  6. Roy Orbison – Pretty Woman: 2.73 seconds
  7. Michael Jackson – Beat It: 2.80 seconds
  8. Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You: 2.83 seconds
  9. The Human League – Don’t You Want Me: 2.83 seconds
  10. Aerosmith – I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing: 2.84 seconds
  11. Lady Gaga – Poker Face: 2.88 seconds
  12. Hanson – MMMbop: 2.89 seconds
  13. Elvis Presley – It’s Now Or Never: 2.91 seconds
  14. Bachman-Turner Overdrive – You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet: 2.94 seconds
  15. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean: 2.97 seconds
  16. Culture Club – Karma Chameleon: 2.99 seconds
  17. Britney Spears – Baby One More Time: 2.99 seconds
  18. Elvis Presley – Devil in Disguise: 3.01 seconds
  19. Boney M – Rivers of Babylon: 3.03 seconds
  20. Elton John – Candle in the Wind: 3.04 seconds

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