Science & Environment

Spice Girls' Wannabe 'is catchiest hit single'

The Spice Girls performing at the 1997 Brit Awards (Image: PA) Image copyright PA
Image caption The Spice Girls' Wannabe topped the charts as the study's most recognisable pop song

The Spice Girls' debut hit, Wannabe, is the catchiest UK hit single, an online experiment has suggested.

Participants recognised the song in 2.3 seconds, compared with an average of five seconds for other popular hits.

Researchers developed the interactive game, called Hooked on Music, as part of a scientific study to unlock the secrets of what makes music memorable.

The initial results from the study will be unveiled at the Manchester Science Festival on Saturday evening.

Data from more than 12,000 participants was collected from the online experiment, which was developed by the Museum of Science and Industry (Mosi).

People who played the game were asked if they recognised a song, which was randomly selected from more than 1,000 clips of best-selling songs, dating from the 1940s until the present day.

The Spice Girls' debut single, which spent seven weeks at number one during 1996, was the most quickly recognised song by participants, taking an average of 2.29 seconds.

Second was Lou Bega's Mambo No 5, which was identified in an average of 2.48 seconds.

Survivor's Eye of the Tiger was third, with an average time of 2.62 seconds.

Image caption Just Dance by Lady Gaga was the fourth most catchy song

Overall, it took people an average of five seconds to recognise a clip from one of the UK's best-selling records.

The Hooked on Music concept was designed by Ashley Burgoyne, a computational musicologist from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and colleagues.

"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," he told BBC News.

"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."

Dr Burgoyne said that his team wanted to see if it was possible to identify whether the most memorable pieces of music shared particular characteristics.

"When we went to look at this, you would have thought that it would have been studied to death yet, in fact, it has not - there is very little scientific literature," he said.

"There are lots of ideas [about] why this is the case but very, very little empirical research."

Manchester Science Festival director, Dr Marieke Navin, said people's appetite to participate in real scientific research and the experiment's need for a large, diverse group of participants made it an ideal addition to the festival's programme.

"It does not matter whether or not people want to do the science per se; they can just play an online game for fun," she told BBC News.

"It has a wide appeal for gamers, or for people who just like music and want to test their knowledge and how good they are at recognising hooks.

"While people are playing, it is actually an experiment and scientists are collecting data. This allows the scientist to test different hypotheses about the musical hook."

Image caption SOS by ABBA was fifth in the list

Dr Burgoyne added: "The most important aspect of this stage of the experiment was getting this very precise measurement of exactly how memorable segments of the songs are.

"What I am going to focus on for the next year is asking what explains this; what are the musical features that makes something catchy?

"Although this is just a casual observation on my part, very strong melodic hooks seem to be the most memorable for people."

The game will remain online until at least the end of the year, and Dr Burgoyne explained how the experiment fed into his team's wider research.

"While it is fun to know this - because people love music but in the long run - 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," he explained.

"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."

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