Song Science

14294725_1599562830345193_2000766453_n1I recently read a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Its a great read, especially if your curious, as I am, in why we do what we do. I’ll sum up the basic points so we can dive in. We all have habits--some we know about, and some we don’t. According to Duhigg, these habits are driven by a loop. The “habit loop” works like this: you have a Cue that lets you know to start an action (e.g. Running a race). The gun fires, and you know it is time to take off. Next, you have the Routine. In this case, you run as fast as you can, maybe turn your head and smile to the crowd (Usain Bolt style), then get your ass to the finish line. The final stage of the habit loop is the Reward--this is what anchors the habit. When your routine is rewarded, you begin to crave that reward. That craving is what keeps you coming back for more.

So I know what your thinking, "why is he going on about habits in a music blog". That's a fair question. The answer is quite simple: when I read this book, it addressed a suspicion I’ve had for a long time regarding the music industry. The suspicion that the only explanation for 'Friday' by Rebecca Black was mind control. Call it what you will, but what happens is this: patterns that we like are recognized, then they take those underlying patterns in the songs we enjoy and find ways to recreate them. So, we keep hearing this cue and then the routine is to listen. In doing so, we have created a system that encourages unoriginality.

The example Charles Duhigg used in his book was ‘Hey Ya’ by OutKast. First, let me apologize for bringing that song screaming to the forefront of your memory.  I know you just dislodged it from being stuck in your head even though it came out in 2003. That's the power of this stuff. So what happened with 'Hey Ya' you ask? 'Hey Ya' was born to be a hit. Producers and radio affiliates alike loved it and backed it with millions of dollars. The day finally came to drop this bad boy and… it fell flat. Not only did it fail, but people hated it.

So the studios are scrambling trying to figure out what could have possibly gone wrong? The problem they soon discovered was it sounded nothing like what was on the radio at the time. While this phenomenon of diversity in sound in pop music is rare, have no fear, there is protocol to make it work.

What happened next might explain a lot about why you like a song and don’t really know why. They began searching through songs that were popular in 2003 for any connection they could find (lyrics, pacing, rhythm, etc.). Once they found a connection with songs people already enjoyed, they would sandwich OutKasts' single in-between the two favorable songs, and we did the rest. Eventually, whether we liked it or not, falling in love with ‘Hey Ya’ became habitual.

Its easy to make the industry out to be a monster, but we keep rewarding them for their habits of making 'sounds' instead of music. It isn’t difficult to pick up on the cues of modern music if you pay attention, and the routine is pretty obvious. The thing that I continuously struggle to find is the reward? We listen, but what do we gain? If you don't have a good answer, it may be time to change the station.