The Great British Bake Off theme: what makes Tom Howe’s music so catchy?

23 August 2019, 15:22

By Rosie Pentreath

Pizzicato strings and chirpy cellos form the basis of the cheerful opening music to the nation’s favourite televised baking contest – we break down exactly *what* it is that gives us those Bake Off feels when it kicks in.

The tenth season of The Great British Bake Off premieres this Tuesday 27 August – and with it comes that delightfully irresistible theme music.

Written by British composer Tom Howe, the Bake Off theme is for many now as much of a showstopper as any nine-layered opera cake.

So while our mouths are already watering at the thought of Signature Bakes and contestants overcoming tricky Technical Bakes to dazzle us all, our ears are also rather overcome in anticipation for that familiar pizzicato string-led theme music.

Read more: Did you know Sandi Toksvig from Bake Off has written a stage musical?>

For us, its enduring strength lies in two things:

One – it’s incredibly uplifting. Think John Lewis Christmas advert levels of joy.

And two – it’s got as much bounce and lightness as a well-risen sponge.

So like Paul Hollywood might pick apart a cookie crumb, we’re going to find out exactly why the music works so well in a rigorous and very technical musical analysis.

The Great British Bake Off premieres on Tuesday 27 August 2019
The Great British Bake Off premieres on Tuesday 27 August 2019. Picture: Channel 4 / YouTube

Introductory anticipation

First off ­– that opening.

The Great British Bake Off theme opens with a three-note motif played on a single pitch by the cellos and backed by a four-note pizzicato, which repeats four times before the main melody comes in. It feels poised – ready to pounce – and the anticipation is palpable because of the fact it is driving forward rhythmically, but doesn’t change pitch.

We’re on the edge of our seats!

And then...

Syncopated rhythms

After that tense opening, the see-sawing accompaniment patterns start in the upper strings: Duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh, duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh, and so on.

When the melody itself enters, it’s syncopated – i.e. it goes against the beat, in this instance beginning a quaver behind the main beat. This syncopation gives the melody a lilt that our ears hook on to – hence the catchiness.

Irresistible repetition

It’s worth noting here, the effect on the brain of repeated pitches, rhythms and patterns in music.

We might not be scientists, but it seems that when we hear repeated melodies or bass lines or beats, our brains hook on and jump on for the ride, anticipating change. In turn, it makes the repetition a rewarding experience for us.

Think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: repetitive patterns of irresistible Baroque goodness. Or Philip GlassGlassworks: minimalism at its most addictive (if you’re into that sort of thing).

“Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical,” music writer Tom Service explains in a recent Guardian article.

“It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen.”

Read more: Which Bake Off showstopper are you, based on your musical taste? >

The main Bake Off melody is two iterations of the same motif, which has G as its ‘pivot’ – or the note it returns to. It first rocks up and back to B (an interval of a third), and then up and back to C (a fourth).

The G keeps the tune grounded, while the third and fourth intervals, respectively, allow it to spring joyfully into our ears while never straying too far from where we expect (i.e. that G pivot note). Lovely.

Light orchestration

Like the lightness of sponges dreamed of in the Bake Off tent, the orchestration Howe has opted for is bouncy and weightless. The main forces are strings (dominated by cello and upper strings) and some light smatterings of percussion – a brushed snare here, a sparkle of harp there.

Yep, no soggy bottoms here!

Read more: 21 classical music cakes that are borderline iconic>

Major key

The Great British Bake Off is in a major key (G) and it’s a key that we associate with happiness.

19th-century writer and composer Christian Schubart (not Schubert like the well-known Romantic composer) has an explanation as to why this key is associated with happiness.

He described G major as being “everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love – in a word, every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.”

Well, that’s Bake Off to a tee isn’t it!

Read more: If you can work out the key signature of this piece, you’re officially a musical genius >

Rustic: that tent out in the countryside. Idyllic: um, the cakes. Obvs. Friendship: yep, nothing more friendly than a Bake Off host or contestant.

A very well chosen key indeed. Big hand to Mr Howe.

Now all that’s left to say is: on your marks; get set; bake!

The Great British Bake Off premieres at 8pm on Tuesday 27 August.