Lorde, here we go round the money bush

18:34, Oct 12 2013
HOOKED: Lorde's song Royals is both addictive and complex. Otago University head of music Graeme Downes is using it to teach his students.

A clever blend of maths and nursery rhymes is the recipe behind songstress Lorde's chart-topping success Royals, which has already found its way into an Otago University course.

As she laid the finishing touches on her debut album Pure Heroine, Ella Yelich-O'Connor tweeted her 278,000 followers about "perfecting that nursery rhyme melody thing that makes good pop songs repulsively hooky".

Repulsive or not, Lorde proved herself partial to a bit of nursery rhyme "hooking" in Royals, which has topped the United States charts and yesterday reached No 1 on Spotify.

"Royals is an example of really intelligent melodic writing," Otago University head of music Dr Graeme Downes said.

He said Royals is "sophisticated for a pop song", which is one on the reasons he transcribed it to teach it to his students.

With the rhythmic notes, soulful voice and authoritative "punk" lyrics defiant of American pop culture, Downes was hooked.


The song takes listeners on a journey, keeping a steady beat before surprising us with the prechorus, said Downes, frontman of seminal Dunedin Sound band The Verlaines.

"There's this 'nick nack, paddy wack' rhyme in the middle. 'Gold teeth, Grey Goose, Tripping in the bathroom' - it's quite a mouthful.

"There's a barrage of different images in there," he said.

"It's like a playground taunt, it takes you by surprise."

Lorde's producer, former Goodnight Nurse frontman Joel Little, admitted the pre-chorus in Royals has a nursery rhyme feel.

"But the lyrics are so good you can get away with it," he said.

Earworms - songs that play in your head - have been around almost since music itself.

You can find them in anything from catchy cartoon theme tunes to Beethoven.

A Western Washington University study found songs people like and know possess more sticking power than ones they found annoying.

The Going Gaga study found intrusive songs returned to mind most during low-cognitive-load activities such as a stroll in the park where random thoughts might enter your head.

However, overloading the cognitive system with challenging activities didn't help, but rather increased song frequency.

Not surprisingly, pop artists Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and The Beatles have created some of the stickiest earworms but a truly addictive song needs to be as complex as it is catchy, he said.

"If there's too much repetition you will get bored, and if there's too much variation you can't understand it."

With just four notes, good composers can create their "hook". From this they can create pages of music by repeating, delaying, speeding up, elongating or shortening the notes and flipping them on their heads.

It involves maths, and it's how composers can create film scores for three-hour long movies, Downes said.

"Music is relational, it has to relate to other parts within it."

But blending the perfect melody, harmony, rhythm, vocals and lyrics to make something authentic like Royals is an art, he said.

"It's been craftily created".

Sunday Star Times