Why are some songs just catchy?

Generations of Americans have hummed along to great popular songs like Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" and Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?" without analyzing why the songs were so effective musically. Now, "Listening to Classic American Popular Songs" (Yale University Press), a book by a Yale Professor of the Theory of Music, Allen Forte, does just that.

Mr. Forte states that because the music and words in great songs by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, and others appear simple and accessible, few studies have been made of their "expressive richness." Yet their "special language of melody, harmony, and rhythm" is worthy of attention, as "uniquely American in character."

Asked what makes a tune catchy, Forte says he feels that there are "a number of possible reasons, among which I would include expressive melodic contour, attractive rhythm, and, not least, text (lyrics). There are no general formulae for catchiness, I believe."

Some of Gershwin's catchiest melodies, he explains, are very simple, whereas Kern's "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" contains an "elaborate ascending spiral contour of 11 notes." Other catchy tunes are so complex that they are difficult to sing or whistle, like the beginning of Richard Rodgers's "Manhattan."

How do lovers of golden-age Broadway and film music feel about a musicologist dissecting their favorites? William McBrien, author of a much-praised recent biography of Cole Porter (Vintage Books), is all for it, saying, "Certain techniques of music are present in both classical and popular song, to the point where I feel there is only one song - apart from obvious differences - whether it's by George Gershwin or Schubert."

Indeed, Forte's book finds in Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On" a dissonant chord that is also present in works by Debussy and Stravinsky, closing the gap between classical and classic pop music.

Forte takes us through Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," pointing out the melody's downward progression until it seems to actually get under the skin, what he calls "its subcutaneous journey."

He also observes that songs written for films, like "I've Got You Under My Skin," tend to be longer, often with more unusual lyrics, than conventional Broadway tunes.

"Popular songs of the golden era were sung in many different ways," Forte says. "Movie songs were rendered differently from Broadway songs. Broadway singers differed markedly in their renditions. For example, no one sang Cole Porter's songs the way Ethel Merman did."

No nostalgia-ridden Broadway buff, Forte enjoys a number of current singers who perform classic pop: "Michael Feinstein certainly has a fetching style and a command of the repertoire. Among the younger singers, I very much admire Diana Krall and was among the first to identify her as representing the continuation of a great tradition in the line of Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Horne."

The musicologist says that crossovers like Dawn Upshaw form an important part of the contemporary performance tradition. Indeed, thanks to jazz, crossover, cabaret, movies, and even TV commercials and rock, the classic American popular song remains very much under our skin today. Forte observes that "no other repertoire of fully notated music has undergone such remarkable transformations over such a long period of time, a process that continues today...."

It takes a musicologist to know that, and fans of these evergreen hits can only be glad to hear it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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