Irresistible Songs: A Look at Music as a Drug and Business Plan

Since the dawn of life on earth each living creature has developed a language pattern. Humans have created a very complex method of communication that has continued to evolve through the ages. In addition to languages and way of life music plays a parallel role in human connection. It especially lends itself to acting as a vehicle for expression. Music has evolved like the spoken languages of every ethnicity. Every genre continues to carry its roots as it continues to transform. To the majority music is a life essential and it would be hard imagining going through even just one day without it.

There are countless styles of music some genres are completely original over time artists have created sub-genres inspired by the main genre. As an individual grows and matures their music tastes may change along with their interests. There are demographic reasons for liking certain types of music such as age, cultural background, and social class. Generally young people dismiss older music that was not a part of their generation; older people also have a tendency to dislike newer music. Musical taste forms in the adolescent years, begins to mature when an individual is in their teens. Further into young adulthood a person’s musical taste is well defined, and this person will usually have strong likes and dislikes musically.

This raises the question of what truly forms musical taste. I have interviewed three individuals with different cultural backgrounds and age groups. I asked them how their music preferences have changed throughout their lives, and specific reasons why they enjoy the genre they listen to. Diana is in her mid-twenties and she is an Asian American. She listened to boy bands and popular American solo pop singers in her childhood. In her teens she started listening to Japanese rock groups. It wasn’t just about the music the bands played but about how the band members dressed. She was captivated by their extreme costumes and stage performances with dramatic colors and themes. As she moved from a teenager to an adult she now currently listens to Korean pop bands. She will occasionally listen to bands she enjoyed in her teens and she feels her music taste hasn’t changed much since then. Diana also notes that she is much more open minded about music now than she was in her childhood and teenage years.

Michael is in his mid-fifties and is Caucasian and has lived in America his whole life. In his childhood he mostly listened to Duke Ellington and other artists that performed in the same style. In his teens he started listening to groups like The Supremes and Kool and the Gang. Disco was very popular when Michael was a teen and he played in a cover band. His band performed in disco clubs and covered the songs of his favorite bands. He enjoys disco music because of its upbeat sound and it was very popular when he was young. In his adulthood he moved away from disco music for a short period and began listening to jazz again. Jazz is mostly what Michael likes to listen to currently. He occasionally will listen to the bands he liked as a teen and also well-known popular rock and folk artists from that era. Michael doesn’t listen to or enjoy any of today’s music he prefers the styles from when he was young.

Stephanie is in her mid-twenties and is Caucasian and has also lived in America her whole life. In her childhood she listened to boy bands and solo pop singers. In her teens she began listening to popular rock and heavy metal artists. She mostly listened to bands she would hear on the radio and did not experiment much with other sources. In her adulthood she continued to follow the current trends in the rock and metal genre. However, as an adult she began experimenting with other genres. She started enjoying the soothing sounds of smooth jazz. In addition to jazz she started listening to a few classic rock bands but she still finds herself listening to today’s rock more often. Occasionally she will listen to current pop hits and sometimes the bands she liked in her childhood. When it comes to music she notes that she is open to different styles.

In my teens I began learning to play the guitar and I believe this influenced my musical tastes greatly. I became very interested in musical theory and what truly made up a song. I listen to bands but I also listen to solo guitarists who would base their songs heavily on musical theory. My favorite genres are blues, classic rock, instrumental rock, and Latin jazz. The only difference I have noticed from my teenage years to adulthood is I listen to a wider range of artists, and also branched out to past generations of music. I am extremely open when it comes to listening to music and will listen to almost anything. I treat music as both entertainment and a learning experience.

As for myself I have noticed a pattern between my same age friends and I, we all grew up listening to the same boy bands and solo pop singers. We didn’t seek out these artists on our own they were simply put in front of us by the media. We didn’t question why we enjoyed these groups we only listened to them to be accepted by one another. Once we all reached our teens we branched off in our own unique directions. The patterns I have noticed with older individuals are they are less willing to listen to the music of this current generation. Younger people are less inclined to listen to older music however; they don’t completely dismiss it and find a few songs and artists appealing. Education level doesn’t seem to play a key factor with open mindedness regarding musical preference.

Above everything it seems that the media is the first influence of music listening for the majority of individuals. Corporate pop culture lays the groundwork but then a person strays from this structure when they begin to question society. This change usually occurs in the teenage years when one is considered to become rebellious. Some teens may continue to listen to popular bands to feel accepted by their peers. Another pattern is that musical taste doesn’t seem to make a dramatic change between the transitions of teenager to adult. Genres that a person has never listened to over the course of their lives, usually get little to no listening time by the individual later in life. Musical preference plants its roots in the teenage years and then gradually matures into adulthood.

In the article Why Do We Like the Music that We Do by Alinka E. Greasley and Alexandra M. Lamont. A study was conducted that involved 23 participants 11 females and 12 males ages 18 to 47, were asked how important music was in their lives and what they used it for. When asked how their musical collection had changed over time. Many of them said that certain styles pushed them to listen to other bands playing a similar style but altering it in a unique way. This change caused them to begin listening to a new genre of music. Some individuals claimed they would get sick of one particular artist and not listen to them for a few years. Eventually after enough time had gone by they began listening to that band again.

Most of the individuals reported that the main way they found out about new artists and genres was from people that they knew personally. They claimed that if they never talked to the friends they had they would never know about some of the music they listen to. Some said that they had uses for music the main one being similar to using it as a drug. Achieving psychological states of mind and having music take them to a new place mentally. They especially used it in this way when driving a car or to relive stress from a situation. Many couldn’t explain exactly why they enjoyed particular artists and genres more than others.

There are psychological reasons for why we choose certain types of music over others. The brain tends to enjoy familiar tunes. Music that sounds similar brings us the anticipation of pleasure because the brain already knows what will be heard next. This happens subconsciously as we passively listen to a song that contains familiar elements. Songs heard tap into the brain’s fundamental system that is sensitive to melody and beat. Segments of songs have the ability to get stuck in one’s head as if playing on loop over and over again. This intrusive thought called an earworm tends to be melodically and rhythmically simple.

Earworms are linked strongly with the brain’s memory. In the article How Do Earworms start? by Victoria J. Williamson a theory based analysis is conducted through the use of voluntary surveys. This study explores the occurrence of involuntary spontaneous cognition, based on an individual’s background and whether or not it is linked with other associations. The study was conducted on 11 undergraduate and postgraduate music students. These participants were contacted randomly over a period of seven days and asked about their current experience with involuntary musical imagery. It was shown that 58% of the music students reported an association between hearing and performing music and then later hearing it as an earworm. A high portion of the musical imagery episodes were of recognizable and well known tunes. This later proves that earworms have a strong relationship with long term memory.

The study also highlights that a musical imagery episode can be triggered just by simply reading song lyrics or the song’s name. Sound association is when the brain makes a song to song connection by hearing tunes that sound similar. The most dominant theme of association is broken down into four sub-dominant themes that relate to memory triggers. These triggers can be people, situations, sounds and words. Music is one of the few forms of art that has the ability to make us feel nostalgic about a particular time in our lives; that can bring about negative or positive feelings depending on the association.

The brain’s memory and reward system have a strong relationship and music can nurture this aspect. The striatum structure in the brain is responsible for the release of dopamine in response to a pleasure related stimuli. The anticipation of pleasure can be just as important as actually feeling pleasure. This is why our brains often enjoy songs that sound similar. Record companies have used this fact for financial gain with the creation of mass produced pop music. Top 40s hits sound very much alike because they use a careful repetitive formula made up of an intro, first verse, chorus, second verse, chorus, third verse, chorus, and outro. These songs rarely exceed four minutes in length and it would seem the goal is to create pleasure in the brain.

Top 40s radio aims to target both pre-teens and older teens who usually have not formed an individual musical taste of their own. The lyrics of hit songs are centered on love, sexual desire, heartbreak, and rebellion. Most popular songs have a punchy repetitive beat that makes them easy to dance to. With the careful editing of a skilled sound engineer these songs are created in a studio and have identical patterns with only subtle differences in their structure. Since our brains enjoy hearing similar tunes pop music is often addictive. Record companies found this to be a powerful way of creating revenue. Eye catching celebrities are not just singers but spokes models for selling apparel, fragrances, cosmetics and other miscellaneous products.

There are many factors that play a role in popular music but producing is the way most hits are written. The article The Doctor is In by John Seabrook is a detailed look into the lives of today’s producers that are responsible for the success of many hit singles. Lukasz Gottwald has co-written and co-produced more than 30 top ten songs for well-known idols in the business. Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball and Katy Perry’s Roar were written by Gottwald and Max Martin his frequent collaborator.  Gottwald has a publishing company called Prescription Songs which is composed of 40 song writers and producers to assist him. “A hitmaker who understands all the ways to make a song irresistible, in its creation and production and its promotion and sales, has distinct advantages.”(Seabrook) A song is not just a song but also a business plan.

Bonnie McKee is a lead lyricist for Gottwald at age 16 she arrived in Hollywood from Seattle with a record contract and a chance at pop stardom. Her album Trouble released 2004 did not sell well and she was dropped from her label. Working at a vintage clothing store trying to support herself she met Katy Hudson who recently changed her stage name to Katy Perry. The two of them went to parties together collecting experiences that they used years later. Perry and McKee wrote the song Last Friday Night a 2007 hit that Perry performed.

McKee had a second chance at her dream and wrote a song called American Girl this track appeared on YouTube. Gottwald notes that he favors this type of soft launch were songs are leaked onto YouTube in hopes of going viral. When McKee writes lyrics she views it as a mathematical process in which a line has a certain number of syllables and the next line is a mirror image. When asked in an interview if the structure used made the song formulaic McKee responded: “People like hearing songs that sound like something they heard before, that’s reminiscent of their childhood, and of what their parents listened to.”

Pop songs are carefully edited with an electronic overtone to create dynamic range compression. This technique makes even quiet sounds in the music seem loud this gives the song energy making it stand out in public places where it is often played at high volumes. This is noticed to be predominant in large places of business like shopping malls and chain stores. As consumers passively listen to the music played their main focus is shopping. While they subconsciously hear familiar songs their brains are releasing dopamine. This in turn puts them in a better mood and they may possibly browse for a longer period of time and make more purchases. The formula used in pop songs is the perfect addition for product marketing for its ability to force the brain to associate the product with pleasure. This structure has remained a powerful force in business for quite some time and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.


Works Cited

Visualizing the Structure of Pop Music:

How Do Earworms Start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of involuntary musical imagery Victoria J Williamson, Sugar R. Jilka. Goldsmiths University of London (2011).

The Doctor is In. John Seabrook. The New Yorker (2013).

Why Do We Like the Music that We Do by Alinka E. Greasley and Alexandra M. Lamont.

Music: It’s in your head, changing your brain. Elizabeth Landau. CNN. (2012).

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. Robert Jourdain. William Morrow and Company. New York. (1997).


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