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Why the whole bar sings along to certain songs

The official 'We Are The Champions' music video. Taken from Queen - 'Greatest Video Hits 1'.

It’s nearing 1 a.m. The lights are dim in the bar and the opening riffs of Queen’s “We are the Champions” blare from the stereo. Suddenly, it seems like everyone in the bar is singing, “We are the champions, my friends, and we’ll keep on fighting, till the end …” 

“I was out on a night out and I saw [several] groups sort of huddled together belting out songs at the top of their lungs. And I was blown away by the all enthusiasm and vigor,” says Alisun Pawley, a musicologist and lecturer at Kendal College in England.

“It had a tribal quality. What is it about this song?” 

To understand why people croon in bars, Pawley visited pubs and clubs in several towns in Northern England. Over 30 days, she recorded 1,110 songs, played throughout the evening. In addition to capturing the song, she noted what lyrics roused the crowd and estimated the number of people singing when the tune reached its climax. 

She and a colleague, Daniel Müllensiefen, a music psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, analyzed the most popular songs to see if they shared any particular similarities. 

Paul McCartney leads athletes and audience members in what amounted to one massive sing-a-long to the Beatles song

“We looked at various aspects from their melodic aspects, the range, the intervals between notes -- I thought that maybe if [the intervals] weren’t as far apart it would be easier to sing, [but] that wasn’t influential,” she says. “We looked at the aspect of the lyrics and how relevant they were in the context of a pub.”

Pawley found that pub-goers most enjoyed crooning high-energy songs sung by male vocalists with high chest voices and fewer warbles (these qualities describe something known as an anthemic vocal performance). All the popular songs spent at least four weeks on the UK music charts. Crowds that engaged in sing-a-longs were normally younger and the later it was, the more likely it was they would sing.      

“The later on in the evening, the more people sang along and we largely relate that to alcohol,” she says. 

While Pawley thought that songs with nonsense words such as “Hey Jude,” with its "nah, nah, nah, nah" would be more popular, she found nonsense words didn’t add a song’s appeal. (“Hey Jude” united the world in a sing-a-long during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, which Pawley says was “just brilliant.” She believes the song was a hit with an international crowd because non-English speakers don’t need to understand nah to enjoy it.)

People gravitated toward songs with some cultural significance. Even if “YMCA” isn’t on a personal favorite, people know the words and it’s a mainstay at festive events.

“Songs have kind of a tradition about them and very new songs haven’t necessarily built a culture.”

She hopes to conduct similar research in the United States. She suspects the songs might have different titles, but will share the same musical properties. 

The article will be published in the journal Music Perception later this year.

Top 10 pub songs in England:

1. "We Are the Champions," Queen (1977)

2. "Y.M.C.A.," The Village People (1978)

3. "Fat Lip," Sum 41 (2001)

4. "The Final Countdown," Europe (1986)

5. "Monster," by The Automatic (2006)

6. "Ruby," The Kaiser Chiefs (2007)

7. "I'm Always Here," by Jimi Jamison (1996)

8. "Brown Eyed Girl," Van Morrison (1967)

9. "Teenage Dirtbag," Wheatus (2000)

10. "Livin' on a Prayer," Bon Jovi (1986)