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Sing-Along Songs: What Makes Us Belt Out Our Favorite Tunes?

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A recent study by doctors Alisun Pawley and Daniel Mullensiefen seeks to answer the question: Why do we sing along to certain pop songs and not others?

Pawley, a teacher, musicologist and musician who just wrapped a tour of Sweden with the Blossom Street Singers, said this is the first study of its kind, and it's taken her and Mullensiefen about six years to finalize the data.

"I originally got this idea by wondering whether pop songs were written specifically so amateur singers could sing along with them," she said. "But that definitely wasn't the case."

To research the project, Pawley spent 30 nights "undercover" at clubs and bars in the U.K., factoring in variables like time of night, proximity to a big city, vocal performance, lyric intelligibility and gender. She attended 1,050 "song events" and analyzed 636 songs. The study is expected to be published later this year in the Music Perception journal.

A lot of the qualities of the most "singalong-able" songs were expected: Their singers inspired "confidence" and excitement, the words were easily comprehended, the venue was large and had more people, it was the weekend and revelers were more inebriated.

But others were more surprising. Male singers had many more singalong-able songs than females, and the "story" of each song didn't really matter, Pawley said, as long as the words were easily understood. The more effort the singer made, the more likely it was that the crowd would sing along. But if the singer "embellished" the vocals too much, Pawley concluded, revelers were turned off.

Pawley also found that people are fans of the high chest voice, which might help explain why at a wedding in upstate New York a couple of weeks ago, Katy Perry's highest register on "Firework" didn't stop hundreds of guests from belting out the chorus. In fact, it only encouraged them to scream extra loud, their own vocal limitations notwithstanding.

Pawley said that Perry and other female artists would make the list if the study was conducted in America, which she hopes to do in the next couple of years. There are no female singers on Pawley's original top 10 list of singalong-able songs, which includes classic, high chest-voice songs like Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and Queen's "We Are The Champions," as well as the Village People's "Y.M.C.A" and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl." Also represented are songs that might not make the top 10 list anymore, like Sum 41's "Fat Lip" and Wheatus' "Teenage Dirtbag."

An earlier version of the study was released in 2011, but Pawley said it was "incorrectly reported" in the press. Rather than discussing the qualities of singalong-able songs that the research uncovered, the articles instead focused on the "top 10 most singalong-able songs" portion of the study, which Pawley said was time-specific and not necessarily the correct representation of her research.

"The [articles] said, like, 'Academics Report on the Most Catchy Songs Of All Time Ever,'" Pawley said. "A lot of people thought we'd just come up with a list of songs, but really it's just what happened to be playing at that time.'"

On Friday, Pawley and Mullensiefen will present their newest research at the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Thessaloniki, Greece. The theme of the conference this year is "music cognition," or the way people respond when they listen to music or play it themselves.

Hundreds of presentations are on the docket, from the very direct to the more advanced, including "When Music Drives Vision: Influences of Film Music on Viewers’ Eye Movement" and "The Coupling of Gesture and Sound: Vocalizing to Match Flicks, Punches, Floats and Glides of Conducting Gestures." The latter makes one wonder what an album of "match flicks" and "punches" would sound like, but we'll leave that to Radiohead in 2025.

Next up for Pawley and Mullensiefen: a commissioned study on the singalong-able qualities of national anthems. If the parameters of the previous study stick, "the rockets red glare" portion of our anthem will really kill.

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