Have you ever disliked a song only to like it later on?
After a week or more of aural bombardment by a particular song we don’t like, we often begin to hum the tune. And we find our dislike for the song tempered.
I call this the familiarity phenomenon. A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that increased exposure creates affinity with a piece of music. I wonder if the great majority of current top 10 pop songs would disappear without a trace if it wasn’t for force feeding by radio, media, and tv. The subset of songs played on general radio is so small as to appear like a short Spotify playlist stuck on repeat. There’s no room for any randomness so we hear a handful of songs over and over. We begin to recognise the patterns and the sound of the artist’s voice. The familiarity becomes almost comforting. Human beings are drawn towards things that make them feel comfortable. Familiarity helps us feel safe and in control. Better the devil you know, as they say.
I wonder does this principle apply to repetition within a song itself. One of my favourite pieces of music from any genre is Bolero.
This wonderful music by Ravel is based around a central motif. The rhythm remains constant throughout the piece. Two melodies repeat using changing instrumentation and the intensity builds towards a crescendo.
By the end of this masterpiece we have heard the melodies so often we become intimate with them. It excites us to hear to each new instrument playing these familiar sequences of notes. The beautiful melodies are simple, allowing first time listeners to recall them after a single performance.
Getting back to appreciating music that we’ve become familiar with. This article from 2011 talks about the ‘mere exposure effect’ and its important role in our emotional engagement with music: “becoming more familiar with a particular piece of music increases the subject’s liking ratings for it”. It helps demonstrate why some people enjoy complex musical compositions (usually in a particular style) while others prefer simpler melodies. Take Jazz, for example, which is essentially Blues music with some ‘irregular’ scale notes thrown in. From personal experience, the more I listen to Jazz the more I can appreciate more complex Jazz performances. And my tastes change over time, preferring more outlandish jazz as opposed to the classics, at least for sustained listening. A study in Frontiers in Psychology states that a listeners’ preference increases for music that they've encountered before. This effect is even stronger for music that is complex. The study also reports that “…melodies that are encountered in an exposure phase are later replayed in new timbres, (and) participants continue to report increased liking for them”. This seems to confirm the ‘Bolero’ effect.
The next time you hum along with Justin Bieber’s latest masterpiece, after it has been played to death on the radio, remember it’s not your fault. Blame your brain.
I could call this post: “how to appreciate jazz”, and I could replace “jazz” with any other complex art form. Most of us, don’t invest time in appreciating our cultural heritage. Like visual art appreciation, music requires an investment of time if we are to appreciate it in its entirety.