By Crystal Ramos
Why is your favorite song so good?
On my most recent scroll through the internet, I stumbled across an account on TikTok called @SongPsych. The basis of the account is “breaking down your favorite songs” and is run by Dev Lemons, who is a musical artist herself.
She uses musical theory, history and technicalities as well as ties in our psychology to explain why we have such an attraction to some of the most popular songs to date.
If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s to question everything, so finding this account was a godsend for me. There is nothing more intriguing to me than learning exactly what makes the melody of this song is so good or why that beat is making me feel nostalgic. How exactly are we all as a collective enjoying the same song?
Upon diving deeper into this type of musical research and a couple of TEDx talks later, I discovered a common theme. Music is a language, a universal one at that, whether we know the technicalities behind it or not. Beyond that, certain notes can invoke and recall certain feelings one might have in the subconscious.
In Rachel Claudio’s TEDx talk, “How to translate the feeling into sound,” she brings up how D minor is perceived to be the saddest of all keys. Claudio however states that the key is not sadness itself. As humans, we carry that sadness already and D minor is just a harmonic match for a particular kind of sadness. What I drew from this is that musical keys have the power to draw up and sync to our emotional experiences.
So what particularly makes music beautiful? In Scott Rickard’s TEDx talk, “The world’s ugliest music,” he shows that something as simple and as overlooked as the repetition of notes makes music beautiful.
He displays this by having a pianist play a song with the absence of that repetition and how it can make something “sound ugly.” We can all recall the famous “dun dun dun” in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Rickard says pieces like this are so highly appraised and deemed beautiful because of the patterns and repetition in which the notes flow.
With these two ideas in mind: musical keys have psychological drawing power and repetition has an impact on how we perceive music, let’s get into the breakdown of some of these songs.
Why is Redbone by Childish Gambino so good?
In this explanation, our love of Childish Gambino’s falsetto in this song has to do with our own association with our deep emotions.
What is falsetto? It is a method singers use to sing notes higher than their normal range. Musical psychologist David Huron says that when we hear these high notes, our brain releases “excitatory hormones that increase [our] arousal state and make [us] more attentive.”
For example, when we are in the middle of an emotional state like crying our voices tend to go up into this higher falsetto pitch. It is no wonder why we as a collective can connect Gambino’s falsetto to deep gutty emotional feelings but still enjoy the song as excitatory hormones are being released.
What makes She Loves You by The Beatles so good?
The theme of this breakdown is the repetition of the chorus of this song. @SongPsych explains that repetition is a form of learning and helps our brains solidify connections that are used to recall memories. Our brain’s neurons create new pathways when a new connection is made. The repetitive exposure of this information, and in this case, the chorus, can help strengthen these pathways. In short, the catchiness of this song is brain food.
Why is Starboy by The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk so good?
@SongPsych explains that its nonstop repetitive use of the bass drone notes throughout the song contributes to its success. What is a drone note? It is a harmonic or melodious effect in which a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of the piece.
Again, this pattern of repetition is so important. Musicologist Peter Van de Merwe once said, “of all harmonic devices it [a drone] is not only the simplest, but probably also the most fertile.” These drone notes can be found in many pieces of classical and popular music and can hone in the complexities layered on top. A drone note creates this universality within a song that can be comforting and pleasing to the listener.
I highly recommend watching all of her other musical breakdowns and researching even just a little bit of the psychology behind the music. Next time you hear your favorite song, look out to see if you can pinpoint the notes that tug just a little extra at your heartstrings or if you can hear why the patterns in that melody make that song so beautiful.
Featured image by Crystal Ramos.