Unless you have been living under a rock these last few months, a baby shark has most definitely made itself comfortable in your ear canals a few times. ‘Baby Shark’, originally a campfire song about a family of sharks, hit internet virality some years after a South Korean media brand called Pinkfong put up a version of this song on YouTube as educational material for tiny tots. Listen to this song once, willingly or unwillingly, and the tune never seems to leave your ears. So, what is it that makes Baby Shark, or any other catchy song, catch the way it does?
The biggest factor that determines how catchy a song is repetition. This theory has many supporters including neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, who says as much in his book Musicophilia, which attempts to understand how music works on the brain. If you break the melody of ‘Baby Shark’ down, you will be presented with a set of repeating notes (D-E G GG GG GG), which in turn repeat for each verse.
A very basic component of music, the riff, or ostinato if you want to borrow a term from classical music, is all about repetition. Composers have always known that a recurring rhythmic or melodic pattern is rather important in making sure that their tunes are memorable. So even the most complex works of classical music would have sections that were meant to be catchier than the rest. For example, the Toreador’s Song in Bizet’s opera, ‘Carmen’. Or ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite.
However, just unvarying repetition is not enough. Otherwise a metronome is enough to produce the catchiest tune ever. There needs to be an added layer of either variation with each iteration, like playing around with the tempo, or the other instruments and vocals that adjoin the melody need to be doing interesting things with each repetition.
‘Baby Shark’ achieves this through clever voice modulation thanks to the need of enacting each member of the shark family. So while you are repeating the same melody in each verse, the change in voice for baby shark, mama shark, papa shark, grandma shark, keeps it interesting and catchy. Berty Ashley, scientist and musician, also explained how a lot of catchy tunes including ‘Baby Shark’ feature what is called as the “major lift”. A major lift essentially refers to a transition from a minor chord to a major chord, which as the name implies, has the effect of uplifting the mood of the listener.
Another standard technique that composers used, especially in operas, was to associate a musical motif with each character. Whenever the character appears, or their appearance has to be foreshadowed, the motif plays. People, having heard that motif before in association with the character, are able to appreciate the narrative that the music conveys in a clearer fashion.
This sense of familiarity is another big factor in making a song catchy. And if the familiar bit of the music has the ability to evoke an image or a feeling, even better. Pinkfong’s version of ‘Baby Shark’ starts with bars that are meant to be reminiscent of the opening theme of the movie Jaws, thus immediately bringing to mind sharks.
They did not have the rights to use the Jaws theme, so they instead used something from classical music that sounded similar, the opening bars of Dvorak’s ‘Symphony No 9’, or the ‘New World Symphony’ as it is better known. Because I have been familiar with that tune for many years now and is a personal favourite, very often when I try to hum ‘Baby Shark’, my mind automatically segues into the Dvorak composition. Something similar used to happen when a friend was teaching me how to play tunes on a keyboard, and in my attempt to play the opening riff of ‘Breaking the Law’ by Judas Priest, I would segue into the typical tune used while chanting the Vishnu Sahasranamam.
Ashley pointed out another set of tunes that play on the ability of evocative familiarity to make catchy music are various national anthems across the world. While the evocative familiarity of your own country’s anthem is obvious enough, sports fans will often find the anthems of their favourite teams or players very catchy.
Ask any Michael Schumacher fan, and it is very likely that they can competently hum both the German (for he was German) and Italian (for Ferrari, his team, was Italian) national anthems, for they were played every time he won a race. Maybe if the internet ever adopts an anthem, they can go for ‘Baby Shark’.
Thejaswi Udupa is a director of product management at RoofandFloor. He lives in Bengaluru, and listens to music nearly all his waking hours.