Your dad was right all along: pop music does all sound the same. From time immemorial, parents have griped about their children's musical tastes, dismissing the pop songs of the day as facile, repetitious and samey.
Now their opinion has been backed up by science. When it comes to music, it seems familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds content. We like our songs simple, with repeating patterns and phrases; most of all, we like them to sound not too different from those we’ve heard before.
We’ve long suspected that pop music has been reheating the same handful of tunes and serving them up again and again in different sleeves, but now we may have a recipe for burning up the charts.
A number of studies have made progress in finding out why people gravitate to particular artists and styles. They discovered that, despite the fragmentation of modern music into a million genres and sub-genres, the most successful songs are the ones that sound reassuringly familiar. You might think you have “eclectic” musical tastes, but you’d be surprised how much you like to stay in your comfort zone.
Keep it simple
At the end of last year, researchers at the Medical University of Vienna published a study of complexity in music, and how it reduces in inverse proportion to its commercial success.
They examined several genres of music, tracking changes over time, and discovered that, as their appeal widened, they inevitably moved away from complexity and towards a simpler, more homogenous style. It seems that musical virtuosity and stylistic variety are useful for impressing your peers and establishing a core fan base, but if you want to appeal to the masses and sell records by the bucketload, you have to, well, dumb it down a bit.
This might explain why, during the 1970s, prog-rock bands such as Yes and Genesis were revered chiefly by beardy student types who liked long, noodly passages in strange time signatures; they began making real hits in the 1980s by simplifying their sound and going for shorter songs with singalong melodies.
For anyone frustrated why All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor was a top-selling tune of 2014, while Alt J's Left Hand Free languishes in the lower reaches of the end-of-year charts, this is not much comfort. However, for the millions of people who downloaded All About That Bass, and are playing it again and again on repeat, this is the ultimate musical comfort zone, says Prof Elizabeth Margulis, whose book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind examines why we like to listen to the same silly songs over and over again.
“People like to claim they listen to all kinds of different music, but when you track them and show them that really they’re listening to the same thing, they get kind of embarrassed,” Prof Margulis says. “But maybe there’s something essentially musicalising about repetition; maybe it’s helping us to orient to music. So it’s not something negative, but central to the way we hear music.”
She says listening to the same song repeatedly really does get us into the music, to the point where you actually imagine it's you and not Pharrell Williams who is singing the global hit, Happy. And even though you now know exactly when the chorus is coming, the buzz of anticipation is increased as it approaches.
“The more you listen to something, the more tightly connected you are to what’s about to happen next,” she says. “So you get immersed in it in a different way than you did the first time. You have this sense of virtual participation, which is what people report when they try to describe a powerful piece of music. They’ll talk about how the boundaries between themselves and the music seem to dissolve. So by listening to music again and again, you can accelerate that orientation to sound.
“It helps that as you keep listening to the same piece again and again, you’re not really hearing the same thing. We’ve shown in studies that you can trace the way people’s attention is shifting across those repeated listenings. So things that eluded them on the first hearing, when they were stuck in the moment, get captured on these later hearings, and they can process that, and it can be a lot richer.
“Often times in intellectual discourse about music, we try and understand music in terms of other dimensions of speech and language. We just might want to admit that there’s something about music that’s really tightly linked with repetition, and until we stop being ashamed of repetition, we might have trouble understanding music on its own terms.”
But can the music industry extract a hitmaking formula out of all this data? Is there a blueprint for success?
“There’s probably not a formula, but there may be some insight into how repetition intersects with complexity,” says Prof Margulis. “If something hits that sweet spot where it’s sufficiently complex that you need to keep listening to it, but not so complex that it’s completely elusive, I think there’s something in there that is probably important to what becomes a hit.”
MAGIC FORMULA: HOW TO CREATE A HIT RECORD
- Keep it simple, but not too simple: If your song is too easy to assimilate, the listener will get bored and switch off. Stick a tricky bit in there to keep their attention, then reward them with a catchy chorus.
- Use backing vocalists: Researchers at the University of Southern California analysed thousands of hit records over the past 55 years and found that background vocals increase a song's chances of hitting the top of the charts.
- Repeat, repeat: The USC researchers also found that the more you repeat the chorus, or repeat the same words within the song, the better its chances of becoming a hit.
- Genres don't matter: Music has fragmented into so many genres and sub-genres, it's nigh-on impossible to keep up. But researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden found that no matter what tribe they belong to – goth, metal, dubstep, whatever – people listen to music in much the same way. Researchers identified nine "perceptual" features that most music fans have in common, no matter how "out there" their taste is: speed, rhythmic clarity, rhythmic complexity, articulation, dynamics, modality, overall pitch, harmonic complexity and brightness.
- Play it again and again, Sam: In the age of the viral hit, it's all about getting your song played as often as possible on as many platforms as possible.