Music is all around us. We hear it in movies, advertisements, internet, even on street corners, blaring up on loudspeakers on someone else’s radio and what not. That’s obviously an indirect consumption of music, we consume it directly too. Like when on our way to work or while doing the dishes. The song that you had been listening to the other day, creeps up into your conscious and you start humming it.
Now, we hear a monumental amount of music, from jingles to instrumentals, rock pop, punk, jazz what have you. There’s a lot of it that goes in our ears but not all of it sticks. We choose to listen to a few selected songs over and over, at a given time, anyway. Maybe it’s the new single by taylor swift for some people or an old classic by Pink Floyd or the Beatles.
We’re constantly bombarded by new music and thanks to the internet, more and more of it is readily available to us.
Most of us who listen to music on a daily basis, which is safe to assume that a majority of humans do, we really have a type when it comes to choosing music, don’t we? We listen to very specific types of songs, that we carefully, meticulously, and obsessively indulge in. Music enthusiasts, of which are many as well, take this one step further where they even take great pride in the music they listen to.
There’s something absolutely magical about choosing what songs you add to your playlist. It separates you from the rest. Because your choice is your own and it sets you apart from everyone else. It gives you a sense of individualism. Really this is why we choose favorites. Identifying your favorite bands, singles, tunes, riffs, melodies, lyrics, albums. It’s fun to do it because it makes you you. Our music choices make us different and unique. But are they always “your” choices? Has a song ever chosen you? Instead of the other way round?
Imagine walking down the supermarket and you hear a catchy song, you don’t like it at first but you recognize it from TV, it’s playing on the loudspeaker you really don’t have much choice. You get in your car and drive home with your groceries and you crank up the radio, and what do you hear, the same catchy tune. You remember some bits from earlier now so your foot automatically starts tapping to the beat or maybe you swing your head along with the chorus and by now you even remember some lyrics. You reach home and Viola! it’s up on TV again and now you’re hooked, you look it up on the internet and download it on your phone and then listen to it for 4 hours straight. Tell me that has never happened to you.
Having a song stuck in your head is by no means a unique thing, it happens to the best of us. Yes, even Shakespeare was running around bobbing his head to his favorite bach piece or whatever. But just because it’s not unique doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. How something so ephemeral can wedge its way into your life and take complete control over you until you’re merely a tourist revelling in its beauty. And what is this if not a song choosing you?
But don’t worry, this can be easily explained by a combination of Repetition and what scientists like to call it, mere-exposure effect. Mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. And repetition in music is just catchy. Lyrics that repeat are easy to remember, a melody that repeats is easy to hum.
I mean, Chopin wrote a copious amounts of music that is critically acclaimed but the one you are most likely to remember is “Nocturnes.” How Beethoven wrote so many symphonies and sonatas but you remember him for “fur elise” and “ode to joy”. These pieces are their most celebrated works among the masses and it’s no Ariana Grande but boy are they catchy! And they have been around for a long time. So much so that there’s a word for it.
Earworm. According to wikipedia an earworm is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing. Sound familiar? So the next time that song won’t leave your head, you’ve got a bad case of earworm.
Most of these earworms come from pop music. But that makes sense, right, it is in the name. Repetition in both lyrics and melody are a, so to say, key feature of a pop song. And since these songs are most widely heard, one is a lot likely to encounter them multiple times for the mere exposure effect to kick in and get that latest 5 seconds of summer song stuck in your head.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Pop music gets as much hate as it gets recognition. We all know that one person who would always go out of their way to explain how today’s music is no good and is definitely ruining the music industry. Not only is that not true, it is also quite misleading. If we talk about fur elise, ode to joy, and nocturne again, these pieces are hugely popular but even the musical genius of Chopin and Beethoven can’t escape the derision repeating notes instill in humanity. Music critics regard these pieces with great suspicion. The reason is that not only is repetition catchy, it is easy to get right. And there is nothing inherently admirable about easy, especially if you go in any amounts of depth in a field. It’s the same way why one would regard Chetan Bhagat with contempt when it comes to books. It’s not a remark of its quality only of its form. It’s because even if we consume “easy” we admire and almost crave “complex.” But does that make accessible music sub par? Here is an interesting thing that you might have missed about what pop music can do.
Listening to the latest billboard hit like Shape of you by Ed Sheeran on repeat on YouTube is something a lot of us are guilty of doing, it has 1.1 billion views and can be heard in literally every mall you go to. So when you randomly hear it play on someone else’s ipod it is not surprising but what it does is pretty cool. And what it does is help you form an instant connection. And it may be limited to just enjoying that song while it lasts but it momentarily creates a safe space. A pop song that is apparently ruining the entire music industry gives you sense of belonging when you hear it at a party you know no one at. In that sense, aren’t pop songs perfect at what music does best? Bringing people together…. Have fun finding a random stranger on the street who has heard Requiem by Mozart!
Now if that doesn’t instantly threaten your individualism, doesn’t rock the core foundations of your sense of self, doesn’t make you think that if the same One direction song that’s stuck in my head is also stuck in literally every other person’s head that doesn’t make me feel all that special in the grand scheme of things. Let me placate your worries….
See the beauty of music is not in what it makes everyone feel collectively but in the room it leaves for uniqueness. Maybe hearing a certain love song reminds you of someone special. Maybe you were doing something interesting the first time you heard a particular song and now every time you think about that time you think of the song and vice versa. Memories and emotions get attached to the music you listen to all the time. Songs that get stuck in your head, weave a life of their own. You have no control over the memories they remind you of, they just do. No control over the people they may remind you of. You’re just a leaf that came in the path of a wind but where it takes you makes you unique.
Here’s something to think about. If what music you choose makes you you, then what does the music that chooses you say about yourself? Wow that’s a mouthful.
If you have a song at the moment that keeps barging into your daily routine, don’t worry it will be over soon. Because sooner rather than later the song that’s stuck in your head will be replaced by another. There will come a time when you will forget about it. It will stay dormant, buried in some obscure corner of your mind. Never raising its head. It will be almost like it never happened. Until one particular rainy winter evening as you make yourself some coffee you burst into the chorus, the lyrics pour out your tongue uninvited and unchecked. Maybe you heard someone singing it on the street, maybe you played it on your phone by mistake but it comes back to you. As alarmingly and unapologetically as the first time it made home in your mind. And maybe as you sip your coffee accompanied by its melody running in your head, you feel good that it chose you…