Why Mr Brightside has stood the test of time, according to scientists (2024)

With a guitar intro that sends wedding-goers running to the dancefloor and a scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs chorus,'Mr Brightside' has a firm grip on British hearts.

In fact, despite being released by The Killers 20 years ago, it is now the UK's biggest-selling single never to reach number one.

The track has overtaken Oasis' 'Wonderwall' to claim the title, having amassed 530.3 million streams and 1.1 million copies sold.

But why exactly has Mr Brightside stood the test of time?

MailOnline spoke to scientists to understand the secret to the rock anthem's success.

Why exactly has Mr Brightside stood the test of time? MailOnline spoke to scientists to understand the secret to the rock anthem's success

Why has Mr Brightside stood the test of time?

Unexpected chord change:Neither the chorus and outro end on thefirst chord of the key, creating tension and making the listener want to play it again to resolve it.

Balance of predictability and surprise:Along with the 'unfinished' sounding chorus, the verses are comprised of a lot of repeating notes to balance the predictable with unpredictable.

Nursery rhyme-like:The melodyalmost exclusively goes up or down by just one note at a time,similar to 'Three Blind Mice', making it easy to remember and sing along.

Makes us happy:'Mr Brightside' has a lot of musical features in common with happy songs, like a fast tempo, electric guitars and astrong 1-2-1-2 beat.

<!- - ad: https://mads.dailymail.co.uk/v8/us/sciencetech/none/article/other/mpu_factbox.html?id=mpu_factbox_1 - ->


Unexpected chord change

In 2017, neuroscientists fromGeorgetown University in Washington, USA examined 545 top-selling pop songs to find out what made them so popular.

They analysed the harmonies chord-by-chord, and found that many of them contained an element of 'harmonic surprise'.

This is an unexpected chord change, which isthought to trigger a rush of dopamine in the brain similar to that created by food and sex.

This is the moment when people get 'chills' from a song, and the technique is used by the Beach Boys in the first 10 seconds of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' as well as in the final chorus of the Beatles' classic 'Penny Lane'.

The researchers say the top pop songs mostly have choruses withrelatively low harmonic surprise, but are preceded by sections with many rare chords.

Co-author Norberto Grzywacz, professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, said: 'We evaluated the role of a compositional element - the harmonic surprise.

'Surprise is important because it is a measure of new information - something that the reward centres of the brain recognise as being of value, leading to a positive emotional response.

'Therefore, our finding that the most popular songs tend to include surprising chords reflects our brain's in-built preference.'

A recent study named it the highest earning song on Spotify in the UK, despite it being released by The Killers 20 years ago. Pictured: The Killers in 2004

'Mr Brightside' is primarily in the key of C# major, which contains the chords C#, D#, F, F#, G#, A#, C and C#.

It is common for a chorus to start and finish on the first chord of the key, as it is what our ears like to hear, and creates a pleasant sense that the song has returned 'home'.

However the chorus of The Killers' song, as well as the outro, ends with a G# rather than returning to the C#.

This adds tension, and is another example of harmonic surprise.

While our brains enjoy unpredictability to an extent, the neuroscientists found thatpart of the reward in the brain comes when a chord change returns to normal.

Dr Grzywacz added: 'The brain enjoys surprise only up to a point, because unexpected events indicate a failure of prediction.

'Hence, the release of tension from surprising sections of a song to common choruses is also signalled positively by the reward centres.'

Songwriters often rob the listener of the sense of resolution, as is done in 'Mr Brightside', as it can make them want to play the song again.

Read More Can YOU guess the singers of these AI-written lyrics? How ChatGPT imagined famous artist's songs... after Nick Cave accused the artificial intelligence bot of a 'grotesque mockery' of his work

Balance of predictability and surprise

Another study, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, found that the correct balance of predictability and surprise is crucial for a good pop song.

Researchers analysed 80,000 chords in 745 songs listed in the US Billboard 'Hot 100' chart between 1958 and 1991.

When a song or a piece of music is being played, the listener forms expectations on what sounds - or chords - to expect next.

Based on this understanding, the team developed a computer model to measure the predictive uncertainty and surprise in songs.

They then looked at the brain activity of 79 study participants listening to the music, using a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

It was found that the music evoked pleasure when it encouraged the listener'to continuously generate and resolve expectations as the piece unfolds in time'.

While 'Mr Brightside' does leave the listener hanging by ending its chorus on a G# chord, it balances it out with its fairly predictable verse.

The melody is largely a repeating C# note, occasionally dropping down to a C or going up to a D#, but always staying in a very close range of just five scale degrees.

It also consists of a repeating rhythm of six notes; 'com-ing out of my cage', 'I've been doing just fine', 'gott-a, gott-a be down' etc.

PhD student and lead author Vincent Cheung said: 'Songs that we find pleasant are likely those which strike a good balance between knowing what is going to happen next and surprising us with something we did not expect.'

It is common for a chorus to start and finish on the first chord of the key, as it is what our ears like to hear, and creates a pleasant sense that the song has returned 'home'. However the chorus of The Killers' song - which is in the key of C# major - ends with a G# rather than returning to the C#. This adds tension, and is an example of harmonic surprise

Nursery rhyme-like

Some popular songs are regarded as 'earworms' - those that get stuck inside our heads on an endless loop for hours or even days.

Researchers from Goldsmiths University of London conducted a study in 2016 to find out what musical elements turn a regular tune into a catchy one.

They asked 3,000 people to name the songs that most often plagued them as earworms.

They then compared these to songs that had never been named as earworms but had ranked equally in terms of popularity in the charts.

The features they found that were unique to the earworms were also common in children's nursery rhymes, which are designed to be easy to remember.

They have a simple, repeating melodythat can make them particularly prone to getting stuck in the mind.

'Moves Like Jagger', for example, has a basic rise and fall in pitch as the lyrics are sung - something that is also seen in nursery songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

These catchy songs also tend to have unusual intervals or changes in the melody, which also makes them more likely to get stuck in our heads.

Under the music video for 'Mr Brightside' on YouTube, one user has commented 'there's something about it that just draws you in and makes you sing along.'

Read More Chart toppers no longer twist and shout! Lead singers have got QUIETER over 75 years, study finds

Like nursery rhymes, the song contains a lot of repetition, allowing its lyrics, melody and iconic guitar riff to be memorised without even trying.

The verse, pre-chorus and chorus are all repeated twice, so there are no new lyrical elements in the second half of the song.

The four-bar riff that forms the introduction of the song also continues playing in the background throughout.

What's more, Brandon Flowers - the lead singer of The Killers - almost exclusively goes up or down by just one note at a time, not making any jumps.

While this means it does not contain unusual intervals as in other popular earworms, it does make it similar to 'Three Blind Mice' and 'Hot Cross Buns'.

The fact that all three melodies have a small range of notes and do not make large jumps between them makesit easy for everyone to sing along and enjoy.

Makes us happy

Despite telling the tale of a man who is obsessing over a former lover, with images of her with her new partner running though his head, 'Mr Brightside' contains elements of a happy song.

In the YouTube comments on the music video for the song, one music fan wrote:'This is one of those perfect songs that give you "that feeling"'.

'This song can make me happy, sad, and everything in between. Almost 2 decades and it feels the same way it did the first time I heard it.'

Music psychologist Dr Michael Bonshor from the University of Sheffieldhas revealed the common musical elements of the happiest songs.

They tend to have a tempo of 137 beats per minute (bpm) and a regular verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure.

However they are also peppered with unpredictable elements like a key change or 'seventh chords'.

'We like seventh chords as they add interest,' said Dr Bonshor.

'Regular chords use three notes, whereas seventh chords add an extra note which provides a sense of musical tension and relief.'

'Mr Brightside' has a fast tempo of 148 bpm and has a simple structure of verse, pre-chorus, chorus, that repeats once before the outro where Flowers sings 'I never'.

The verses contain primarily the chords C# and F# - which are chords one (I) and four (IV) in the key ofC#.

Most pop songs are largely comprised of chords I, IV and five (V) of the key they are in.

But the verses also contain C#7, which is the only deviation from the standard chords in the key ofC# in the whole song.

There isn't a key change mid-track, but the pre-chorus is markedly distinctive from the verse, as it is the first time Flowers sings a note other thanC#, D# or C.

He also starts to elongate certain words, like 'chest' and 'dress', which contrasts from the staccato lyrics in the verse.

Dr Bonshor also says that songs are generally perceived as happier when they are in the major key, which 'Mr Brightside' is.

Spotify's highest-earning songs:Mr Brightside is the UK's biggest earner, with The Killers raking in more than £1million in royalties

'Alongside this, cheery songs usually have a strong 1-2-1-2 beat to them, so that you can dance along,' he said.

'A short introduction means that the song kicks off with a bang straight away, and there's not a long build up.'

The Killers' track has four beats to a bar, helping to make it a dancefloor classic in clubs and at weddings.

The guitar riff introduction also only goes on for four bars before the first 'coming out of my cage.

Dr Bonshor added: 'We like high volume when it comes to how our happy songs are made, with notes played in a bright and bouncy way by instruments such as trumpets or electric guitars instead of mellower instruments.

'Finally, a repetitive rhythm or guitar riff that people can latch onto and becomes memorable is the cherry on the cake.'

Flowers' vocals are backed by a lead electric guitar, a bass guitar and drums, like many other songs that make us happy.

Of course, it has the immediately recognisable guitar riff that introduces the song and plays throughout too.

The fact that 'Mr Brightside' contains many a hallmark of a happy tune has likely helped it stay in our heads, and playlists, for so long.

Number 1 singles are shorter and slower now than they were 70 years ago, study reveals

Pop songs are getting shorter, a new analysis has revealed, with the average length of a Number 1 now closer to three minutes than four.

Chart analysts blame the trend on the death of CDs, with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music turning us away from the turntable.

Artists are foregoing a lengthy intro in favour of getting to a catchy hook that could result in a viral hit, according to chart analyst and historian James Masterton.

Speaking to MailOnline, he said: 'The downward trend of song durations is largely attributable to the way producers are targeting tracks at a streaming audience.

'Long instrumental introductions are a thing of the past, you have to get to the hook or the meat of the song as soon as possible to ensure people don't click away.'

Read more here

Why Mr Brightside has stood the test of time, according to scientists (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Catherine Tremblay

Last Updated:

Views: 5239

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Catherine Tremblay

Birthday: 1999-09-23

Address: Suite 461 73643 Sherril Loaf, Dickinsonland, AZ 47941-2379

Phone: +2678139151039

Job: International Administration Supervisor

Hobby: Dowsing, Snowboarding, Rowing, Beekeeping, Calligraphy, Shooting, Air sports

Introduction: My name is Catherine Tremblay, I am a precious, perfect, tasty, enthusiastic, inexpensive, vast, kind person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.