The Science of Why ‘Baby Shark’ Is So Freaking Catchy
The children’s song earned the rare distinction of cracking the Billboard 100 list. What is it about the song that makes it so damn catchy?
Last week, the two-minute ditty “Baby Shark” broke into the Billboard Hot 100, joining Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode,” and Post Malone’s “Wow” as tunes the country can’t get enough of.
Pinkfong’s version of “Baby Shark,” which rocketed in at No. 32 and has racked up 2.2 billion views on YouTube, is aimed at the diapered set but has also affected innocent bystanders: their parents.
As should be painfully obvious to any adult who’s heard the song and had it stuck in their head for days, “Baby Shark” is an earworm.
But why? The Daily Beast asked some experts about why the song resonates with kids—and adults.
“The song has a simple melody that is not only ‘catchy,’ but is also easy to sing and memorize,” said Beatriz Ilari, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music who has extensively studied children’s music. While simplicity makes sense for kids who have a limited vocabulary and feed off repetition, it’s also a key element of why adults find themselves mindlessly humming the song.
Valorie Salimpoor is a neuroscientific consultant who has conducted research at the Montreal Neurological Institute on how and why the human brain absorbs music. Her studies show that catchy tunes for kids “can elicit intense pleasure” in the brain’s dopaminergic system, where feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and reward are rooted.
“This system relies on forming predictions and assessing consequences,” Salimpoor explained. “When something is better than what was expected, dopamine is released and this can lead to a highly pleasurable feeling.”
Salimpoor’s research has shown that the dopaminergic system works in concert with the superior temporal gyrus, “a region that is involved in storing information about all the sound relationships a person has been exposed to”—music they listened to while growing up, music their parents listened to, music their peers at school listened to. These sound relationships offer predictions of what a person will find pleasurable and cause a release of dopamine.
“If a piece of music is too predictable and repetitive, there will not be a burst of dopamine,” Salimpoor—whose 2-year-old has woken up from dreams and asked, “Where baby shark?”—said. “On the flip-side, if an individual can't form a prediction about the pattern of sounds they could potentially hear, there can't be any pleasant surprises.”
It talks about family and animals
The second element that makes the song irresistible is what Ilari calls “compositional devices” common in children’s songs. “Baby Shark” begins by introducing the main characters of the story (baby shark, mommy shark, daddy shark, grandma shark, and grandpa shark), which are all familiar templates for a child. The repetition of each family member four times and the same melody with just the relative substitution further embeds the song in kids’ minds, feeding into both their love of storytelling and creating familiarity with the characters.
And while the lyrics might seem simple, they’re actually a big reason why kids latch onto them. “Children can affiliate with the words baby, daddy, mommy, grandpa, grandma,” Salimpoor explained. “This helps create a connection or a bond with the music. These are people that children are likely to have a very positive connection with, again providing a pathway to target the emotion and reward systems in the brain.”
Ilari adds: “Children and adults can play with the lyrics and adapt them to their own context (a daddy shark, a nanny shark, a doggie shark), perform the gestures, create new ones, and view the video countless times.”
Salimpoor said the title of “Baby Shark” is a big clue into why it’s so popular. Kids are obsessed with understanding themselves as babies, and animals. Sharks, in particular, can seem interesting but frightening to young minds. Not only does the song address these topics, but it makes it “less scary and easier to deal with.”
The increasing tempo is especially important as a storytelling mechanism for kids.
“There is a sense of action through the use of dynamics, [or] loudness, and tempo,” Ilari said. “The song becomes faster [at the point of the song when the lyrics say] ‘Run away doo doo doo doo’ to signal the small fish are running away, and then slower to signal ‘safe at last’,” Ilari said. “Children love to enact this ‘active part’ of the song.”
Salimpoor added that the upbeat tempo practically pushes kids to move and dance. It’s something that both kids and adults respond to, and a key reason why most pop and club tunes are bangers. “[Faster music] targets the brainstem and other ancient brain systems in our brain and has the potential to stimulate dopamine systems involved in movement as well,” she said. “Synchronization of movement with beat patterns can also be highly pleasurable because it involves formation of predictions. This is why dancing to familiar songs is more fun than trying to dance to completely unfamiliar music.”
It’s not just a song
“Baby Shark” capitalizes on how children consume content: through audio and video. Ilari says “Baby Shark” embodies the “multimodality aspect of children’s musical experiences in our contemporary world.”
“The video aspect is very important—children are not only listening, but are ‘viewing’ and performing the song,” she said. And it helps that the video has high production values: bright colors, seamless human/green screen action, and toddler-friendly dance moves that make the video a must-replay.
Ilari points out that a 2015 video version of the same song had only animated, anthropomorphic characters. The 2016 update that’s gone viral shows children listening, dancing, and singing the song—something young viewers “mirror” and find themselves attracted to. “We know that children like to see other children on the screen, and in this case, they can also imitate their gestures,” said Ilari, who is a parent of toddlers.
That visual element is a reward for young brains—a powerful punch of joy and happiness. Adults might find dancing kids in a cartoonish color-soaked world adorable, but kids’ developing brains actually crave the components: huge eyes, geometric shapes, and friendly sharks wading through a vividly colorful ocean, which many kids associate with the beach and wonder.
And that primal sense of joy and discovery could explain why adults who might not even have kids are “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo”-ing the day away. It takes them back to their own childhoods, a time without politics and responsibility that they look back on with fondness.
Salimpoor, for one, can’t escape the “Baby Shark” frenzy. Her 3-year-old woke her up first thing and asked if she could play “Baby Shark” for him on the phone. And her doctor husband? “[He] hums this song at work!” she said.“The nurses have started humming it as well!”