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Explainer: Why is Call Me Maybe so very, very catchy?

According to the experts, here’s why it gets stuck in your head.

Image: CarlyRaeJepsenVEVO via YouTube

CARLY RAE JEPSEN’S Call Me Maybe is, unquestionably, the proverbial song of the summer.

Whether you love it or hate it – or, like many of us, feel a confusing mixture of the two – the damn thing is everywhere.

It’s been covered by the Cookie Monster, by the Harvard baseball team, and (sort of) by President Barack Obama himself. It has more than 160 million views on YouTube.

And as anyone – by which we mean everyone – who has heard it can attest, it is one of the most powerful earworms ever devised by man’s infernal hand.

So what is it that makes it so catchy? We asked songwriting tutor Ollie Cole of the BIMM Dublin music academy to explain. So here are the reasons you can’t stop singing it (even if you despise it with every fibre of your being):

1. The tempo

Carly Rae Jepsen’s song is exactly 120 beats per minute: the classic tempo for a pop hit. “You’ll find an awful lot of stuff that people dance to – like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition – and a lot of radio stuff is around that,” Cole says.

This speed, he says, is calculated to be easy on the ear. “Songs faster or slower than that can make people feel a little uncomfortable” – which might be artistically desirable, but might also make you change the station. No way with Carly Rae.

2. ‘Hook upon hook’

Jepsen’s manager Jonathan Simkin has said that the reason the song is so catchy is that it has “hook upon hook upon hook”.

What he means is this: Where an ordinary song might just have a single ‘hook’ which the listener might sing along to – say, the melody sung by the vocalist in the chorus – Call Me Maybe also has at least one other one going on at the same time. Those sugary string stabs in the chorus are just another layer of catchiness, laid on top of the melody for extra punch.

Do we need a little reminder?

YouTube/CarlyRaeJepsenVEVO

3. The technical production

Call Me Maybe has had many thousands of dollars poured into its manufacture, and it shows. “It’s really well produced,” Cole says. “The autotuned vocals and those sort of synthesiser strings, they’re all extremely well done.”

The song is highly compressed, a production technique used to even out changes in volume – and also to give the track a punch and dynamism that grabs the listener’s ear.

Compression works by flattening out the sound wave. So where an uncompressed sound wave might look something like this, Call Me Maybe’s wave form looks like this:

(There are two waves because it’s in stereo.)

“It makes it ‘pop’ [on the ear] straight away,” Cole says. “If you look at the waveform you hardly see peaks and dips, just a line the whole way through. It’s a perfect little pop song.”

4. The notes

No, really. Call Me Maybe is designed to be easy to sing – which also makes it easy to remember. There are no big jumps between notes, and no surprises. “The notes are right beside each other on the stave,” Cole says.*

It’s easy for people to sing, and also easy to predict as you’re listening to it. The human brain works in a certain way – if you’re expecting something to happen, then when it happens, it’s almost like a little reward.

So it’s satisfying to listen to. The lyrics work the same way: the rhymes are so predictable that it’s easy to sing along to. The writers went to such lengths to achieve this that “they almost compromise the meaning of the song,” Cole says – everything is sacrificed in the interest of catchiness.

But there’s also…

5. Something very slightly unexpected

Marketing professor James J Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati holds up “incongruities” as a key element of catchiness. Just as you’ve been set up to think you can predict everything in the song, with the techniques mentioned above, there’s a slight twist that grabs your attention.

Cole agrees. “Video Games by Lana Del Rey – that was a perfect example,” he says.

It had this one weird chord. Just one. Where the first time you heard it, it was confusing. But then the next time it’s really satisfying. It starts to become your favourite bit.

Speaking to ABC News, Kellaris cites the crazy/maybe half-rhyme in the chorus of Call me Maybe as the key incongruity that grabs your ear – the rhymes have been so consistent, you don’t expect that variation. There’s also the difference between the imperative of ‘Call Me’ and the uncertainty of ‘Maybe’ – all in all, it’s “a perfect storm for cognitive itch”, he says.

So why can’t anyone make a song this catchy?

Combining all of these elements into one perfectly rounded package isn’t easy, Cole says. Particularly difficult is getting the lyrical balance right. “It’s such a magical little thing to get – it’s straddling sugary-sweet and sickly,” he says.

As a songwriter, when you try and walk that line it’s very difficult. But the lyrical sentiment here works really well for her – especially so because she looks about 15.

Here’s the thing, though: Carly Rae Jepsen isn’t 15. She’s 26. But the way the song is produced and marketed – take the photo above, for example – is all focused on making her seem schoolgirl-age young.

Would the song work as well – and be as catchy – if it was sung by an older person? The marketers are saying no – and maybe that’s their final piece of genius.

*Bonus: A TheJournal.ie staff member points out that Wagner uses the same trick in Ride of The Valkyries. Richard Wagner and Carly Rae Jepsen – who knew?

Video: Hey Han – here’s my number, so call me maybe>

Another ‘Call Me Maybe’ parody…but this one features the Cookie Monster>

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About the author:

Michael Freeman

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