You know what it’s like to have a song stuck in your head? What if you could create those kinds of ear worms with your writing? People would be unable to stop thinking about you.
Okay, perhaps that’s a little extreme, but I think it’s worthwhile to take a closer look. Let’s see how this ultimate stickiness works and how you can apply it to more mundane communication.
A while back, I read a book by musician turned neuroscientist Daniel Levitin called This is Your Brain on Music. I am fascinated by what scientists are learning about the brain and how it affects how we think, feel and act.
According to Professor Levitin, the songs that get stuck usually have a hook that grabs us, emotions that hold us and rhythm that gets us moving.
Hooks grab us
The hook has to be simple enough to easily grasp but not so simple it blends into the background. This hook repeats, varies and returns. The lyrics have to touch deep emotions. And the rhythm should induce a physical response, such as swaying or clapping.
Repetition is, of course, the classic memory-enhancing technique. On its own, repetition becomes boring. But repetition becomes supercharged when the theme varies.
Consider Beethoven’s Fifth, possibly the stickiest piece of classical music ever. It starts with the hook: “Da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-DUM.”
This hook repeats, then varies in note and rhythm. After branching into some new themes, the symphony returns to the hook.
Emotions hold us
A great example of the emotional resonance of sticky songs is Adele’s CD 21, this summer’s biggest international hit. All the songs are about a romantic breakup, achy and sad.
One of 21‘s hits, Someone Like You, has been number one around our house because my daughter sings it so well, accompanying herself on the piano.
Few things are sadder than a breakup when you’re the age of Adele or my daughter. And even though it’s been many years since my heart has been broken, I can remember the pain. I’ll bet you can too.
Adele also uses the technique of repeated hook and variation. In Someone Like You, the title phrase is repeated again and again. But what struck me when I paid more attention to the lyrics, which are muffled when my daughter is singing one floor below, is how “Someone” melts into “Sometimes,” for the punch-in-the-gut climax ”Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
Rhythm move us
As I noted earlier, sticky songs usually have a rhythm that induces a physical response. Think about people spontaneously playing air guitar to a driving rock songs, pretending to conduct a symphony orchestra or bursting into tears about lost love.
But prompting actions through rhythm is much more difficult than applying a hook and emotional resonanc.
Written repetition is a time-tested technique. Twist it and you have magic, as in “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” or, recently, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on rampage that killed 77 people: “Evil can kill a person, but it cannot conquer a people.”
In fact, listen to any politician who is adept at sound bites and you’ll hear examples of a hook with a twist.
Sweet and sticky
Most people understand the importance of emotional resonanc in writing. The classic children’s tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears wasn’t that popular when it debuted because the protagonist was a snoopy old lady. But when it was rewritten as a tale about an innocent child parents cared and children identified.
That’s why you need to get under the skin of the people you are writing for, making sure you address what keeps them up at night or what get them going in the morning. That’s how you connect, attract like-minded people and build community.
Motivating action through rhythm is more difficult because written words lack most of the auditory impact of music. But not all.
Think of words like squish, swoosh and thump. Think of how sound bites live on in written words. Think of the novelist whose rhythmic style embraces you so tightly you can’t put down the book. Note that you heard “Da-da-da-da” and maybe clicked on Adele’s link.
I’ve heard many speakers who have tried, with varying degress of success, to conjure some of the magic of sound by getting the audience to clap or shout.
Write like you talk
That works only if you’re writing for an audience, not if you’re writing for readers. But you can adapt some of the stickiness of sound by writing like you talk. Please share in the comments your ideas for applying the magic of sound to words that will be read.
You might not be as sticky as those songs that get stuck in your head. But if you pay more attention to repetition and variation, emotional connection and the rhythm of speech, you’ll have much better chance of becoming a hit.