Striking a Chord

Psychology professor Carol Krumhansl researches the link between music and memory.

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How catchy is Olivia Newton John’s disco anthem “Physical”? Or the World War I fight song “Over There”? How about Elvis Presley’s classic “Heartbreak Hotel”? Or the Faith Hill country tune “Breathe”? Or Prince’s “When Doves Cry”?

You can weigh in on those hits and many others—100 in total—in an online survey from Professor Carol Krumhansl’s Music Cognition Lab. The quiz, which takes twenty to thirty minutes to complete, asks participants to listen to snippets of ten popular tunes from each decade stretching from 1910 to 2009, then rate them on familiarity and catchiness—in other words, how likely the song is to get stuck in their heads.

Carol Krumhansl

The ongoing project (found at music.psych.cornell.edu) is one of many intriguing experiments that Krumhansl has conducted over the decades, often with undergrads as collaborators. Other topics have included how viewing a musical performance (rather than just hearing it) affects the listener’s appreciation; how well people understand the music of another culture; and the parallels between music and dance in conveying emotion. In a study that dramatically demonstrated the power of musical recall, Krumhansl found that by listening to just 400 milliseconds of a popular song—as in, less than half a second—fully a quarter of student participants were able to identify such factors as its artist, title, emotional content, style, and the decade it came from. “It’s just extraordinary,” she says. “It means that memory for music has to be so precise that you can match this little acoustic ‘tsst’ to that information in your brain.”

In 2013, Krumhansl and former student Justin Zupnick ’12 made headlines for a discovery derived from an earlier version of the greatest-hits survey. They asked a group of students to listen to the top two Billboard hits for each year from 1955 to 2009, then report which were most memorable, what emotions they conjured, and with whom the students recalled listening to them. Data-crunching revealed what the researchers called a “reminiscence bump”—the concept that young adults are not only emotionally connected to their own music but to that of their parents’ generation (in this case, the Eighties) as well. The popularity of music from the Sixties also indicated that grandparents may have passed on a passion for the music of their own youth, which the researchers dubbed a “cascading” reminiscence bump. “Music familiarity is transmitting cross-generationally,” says Zupnick, who works for a New York tech startup that creates ads for streaming services like Spotify. “There’s some kind of nostalgia effect going on.”

Housed in the basement of Uris Hall, the Music Cognition Lab is part of the Department of Psychology—though the field encompasses multiple disciplines including computer science, linguistics, math, and (naturally) musicology. “Music is found in all cultures,” notes Krumhansl, who founded the lab in 1980, when music cognition research was in its infancy. “It must reveal something really important about our minds, our bodies, and our society.”

Currently, Krumhansl is working with Julia Klein ’16, a College Scholar and Presidential Research Scholar, who’s using data from a subset of the 100-song survey to analyze and quantify what makes a song catchy, the subject of her senior honors thesis. As an example of the kind of thing she’s exploring, she cites the established notion that many modern hits follow similar four-chord progressions. For instance, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” (the top hit of 1983) and Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” (top in 1994) use a progression known as 1-6-4-5. “Call Me” by Blondie and “My Sharona” by the Knack use a 1-3-4-6 progression. More recent examples—each using variations on a 1-4-2-5 progression—include “How You Remind Me,” by Nickelback, “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter, and “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé, all Grammy winners or nominees.

Such chordal copycatting can make for amusing comparisons, she notes, with numerous YouTube videos devoted to comically exploiting the “four-chord” concept. “Because a song sounds like ones that we know, we tend to like it more,” observes Klein, who’s also looking at factors like rhyme schemes and lyrical complexity.

After graduation, Klein aims to marry her long-standing passion for music—she plays guitar, flute, ukulele, and more—with her interest in psychology and data analysis, perhaps helping to develop more sophisticated algorithms for services like Pandora and Spotify to suggest tunes to their users. “My mom forced me to start playing piano when I was five, and she told me that one day I would thank her for it,” Klein says with a laugh. “Obviously, that paid off.”

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