What Makes a Song a Sing-Along? Bar-Crawling Reseachers Have the Answers

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

What makes you sing along to a popular song in a bar? Science can explain! (And no, the answer is not "Jello shots.")

According to a research presentation at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition last weekend in Greece, there exists a set of criteria that separates "Livin' On A Prayer" from the billions of tunes that aspire and fail to be "Livin' On A Prayer."

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Musicologist Alisun Pawley spent 30 nights "undercover" hanging out at English pubs in order to observe and determine the common characteristics of the songs that produce a nearly involuntary group-sing. Of course, that's what we all say. But Pauley actually produced a scientific paper at the end of her long, lost weekend. Some determinations reached by Pawley and fellow researcher Daniel Mullensiefen, who spent six years on the project:

The singers being sung along with are invariably male. Barfly belters are sexists, as it turns out. Women will sing along with anyone, but men only want to sing along with men. Perhaps it should be no surprise that guys don't want to catch the eye of that elusive stranger across a crowded room right in the middle of a "Someone Like You" falsetto. But it's worth noting that Queen's "We Are The Champions" and the Village People's "YMCA" were the top two bar sing-alongs Pawley encountered in her pub crawl, so at least the Brits she studied weren't homophobes, just gynophobes. "Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs," the report says, concluding that the bar sing-along may be "a subconscious war cry."

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The most inspiring male singers all have strong, high "chest voices" and avoid fancy-schmancy melisma. A shower stall is an effective reverb chamber, so every dude imagines he can sing like Freddie Mercury, Joe Elliott, or Jon Bon Jovi in the morning. That illusion continues at night, when a crowd full of fellow drunks is drowning out your limited range. The higher, the better, but leave out any extraneous trills, please...which may be one reason why rock appears to beat R&B as a sing-along genre. A sense of strain in the guide vocal is actually okay, because a higher voice "with noticeable vocal effort…indicates high energy and purpose, particularly when combined with a smaller vocal range."

While an abundance of vocal inflections are a turn-off, the chorus melody itself shouldn't be too narrow or unvaried. "The more sounds there are, the more infectious a song becomes," according to the report. "Combining longer musical phrases and a hook over three different pitches was found to be key to sing-along success."

Lyrics barely matter. Read it and weep, Leonard Cohen. Comprehensibility of the words is all-important, because nobody likes to mumble at full volume, but those words actually meaning something is negligible.

The crowd needs to be full of young singles. Perhaps this is one of those truths we should hold to be self-evident. But apparently the onset of middle age and/or marriage diminishes one's desire to test vocal nodules on "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" as part of what Pawley calls "neotribal bonding." Which is actually a fantastic argument for aging and marital shackles.

Bar sing-alongs are more prevalent in British than American culture, and some of the tunes that the researchers found provoking mass participation in the U.K. were ephemeral British hits like the Kaiser Chiefs' "Ruby" and Europe's "The Final Countdown," which would go virtually unrecognized in the States. Pawley said that if the study were being conducted in America at the present time, she'd expect Katy Perry's "Firework" to figure big, breaking the apparent no-girls rule. If she did her study here, she might also discover that even men find Joan Jett's "I Love Rock & Roll" irresistible in America.

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Among the other topics you missed if you didn't make it to Greece for the neuroscientifically inclined Music Perception conference (which we're guessing disgraced "Imagine" author Jonah Lehrer was also not on hand to cover):

"Effect of Visual Cues in Synchronization of Rhythmic Patterns"

"Expectation in Twelve-Bar Blues Progressions"

"The Influence of Music on Gambling: The Role of Arousal"

"When an Everyday Phenomenon Becomes Clinical: The Case of Long-Term 'Earworms' "

"Correlations Between Acoustic Features, Personality Traits and Perception of Soundscapes"

"Play That Fast Thing One More Time!"

(Okay, that last one is just a Rockpile song.)