Don’t deny it. Whether you like the song or not, you’ve no doubt found yourself singing along — or at least humming along — to the mega pop hit at one point or another.
The song is irresistibly catchy, has spurred countless online parodies and become a full-blown craze, with everyone from Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, to Katy Perry, the Harvard baseball team, SMU women’s rowing team and others belting out the lyrics in their own lip-syncing spoofs. A Corgi called “Corgi Rae Jepsen” has barked out the beat and even Cookie Monster has gotten involved, tweeting: “Me just met you. Dis is crazy. But me love cookies! Gimme, maybe?”
What is it about “Call Me Maybe” that makes it so catchy?
“It is hook upon hook upon hook. There is no element to this song that is not super-catchy,” said Jepsen’s manager, Jonathan Simkin. “The melody is catchy. Those synth string lines are crazy catchy. There is not a single aspect of this song that does not draw the listener in.”
The 3 minute and 13 second song, co-written by Jepsen and her guitarist Tavish Crowe and Marianas Trench lead Josh Ramsay, has many elements that composers know make a pop hit and musicologists have identified as signatures of sing-along hits.
An Incredibly Memorable Chorus
Let’s start with that catchy chorus: “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me, maybe?”
It’s melodically easy on the ear, simple enough to stay in your head all day, and topically appeals to Jepsen’s target pop demographic.
“As a songwriter, we always start with a chorus,” said Eve Nelson, a songwriter/producer who specializes in pop for film and television. “The hook of the song is talking about something that every young girl can relate to. It talks about that crush that we all have when we’re 13 and 14.”
Simple, Repetitive Lyrics and Incongruities
The song has simple lyrics. The verses are have weak rhymes that pretty much anyone can repeat after listening once.
“The lyrics are very Mother Goose kind of rhyme,” said Eve Nelson, a songwriter/producer who specializes in pop for film and television. “‘I trade my soul for a wish/Pennies and dimes for a kiss,’ …they are very cute. A five-year-old could probably sing this because it’s just so easy.”
Simkin said, “The lyrics are such a hook — not just the call me maybe line, but ‘Before you came into my life/I missed you so bad.’ I have had so many people tell me that those words really speak to them.”
James J. Kellaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati who has studied why certain song stick in your head more than others, found that simplicity as well as repetition are crucial to a song’s catchiness.
“Simple, repetitive music is more likely to get stuck in one’s head because the cognitive resource demands are low,” Kellaris said, “And because repetition within the music suggests the cognitive echo we experience as an ‘earworm.’”
An “earworm” is what Kellaris calls a song that gets stuck in your head.
Another component that produces an “earworm” is incongruity — what Kellaris describes as an odd or unexpected musical or lyrical feature that can make a song get stuck in your head.
“A musical incongruity would be a missing or added beat, a melodic contour or harmony that violates pattern expectancies. A lyrical incongruity could be an odd word, a slightly mispronounced word or a violation of expected syllable accentuation,” he said.
Often they go unnoticed, he said, but put ” a slight ‘something’s not quite right’ thought in the back of the listener’s mind,” and therefore stick. Jepsen’s hit is filled with incongruities. Take the hook: “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me, maybe?”
“Crazy” and “maybe” are a soft rhyme. The listener expects to hear a hard rhyme like lazy, hazy or daisy, but gets maybe, which he says is “a minor violation of listeners’ expectations.”
Kellaris also points out that the directive (“call me”) and caveat (“maybe”) is conceptually incongruous.
“That’s a two-for-one deal on the incongruity dimension,” he said, “A perfect storm for cognitive itch.”
The musical arrangement is undeniably a part of the song’s catchiness. The music is itself a hook, filled with pizzicato strings and boppy rhythms in the drums, that’s infectious.
“The producer who arranged it has these musical hooks. You really hear that in the chorus. There’s a musical hook that’s as catchy as the song as the lyric going on,” Nelson said, humming the melody. ”You’re hitting them over the head, double whammy. It’s a song and lyric hook and there’s also a musical hook that’s so infectious. They’re singing that musical hook all the time.”
Jepsen has credited Josh Ramsay with “pop-ifying” the song. Simkin said Ramsay “has an amazing innate sense of pop, of creating hooks in the production of a song.”
“So if you start with a song that is already catchy even in its bare bones, and can then add catchy production elements, you are taking something great and making it even better,” Simkin said. “And Josh is really a natural at production. He knows how to maximize the hooks in a way that is not just catchy but interesting.”
When Justin Bieber calls your single “possibly the catchiest song I’ve ever heard,” you know you’re destined to attract a few listeners. Bieber undoubtedly upped the song’s cool factor and made it something every teen wanted to be singing out with friends on a Friday night.
Simkin contends that the song was destined to be big on its musical merits alone.
“What Bieber did was provide, for lack of a better phrase, an incredible direct-to-consumer marketing strategy. By tweeting and using his extensive social media following, he was causing millions of people to listen to the song. Which was a huge contribution. But if the song had been less than amazing, this reaction would not have ensued.”