Psychologists have explored why we sometimes like listening to the same song on repeat

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Bittersweet songs were listened to more often than happy or relaxing songs, and provoked a deeper connection

By Alex Fradera

It’s that song. Again. The one they play over, and over, and over. It might be your roommate, child, or colleague. The year I shared a flat with my brother, it was Worst Comes To Worst thrice daily. What are the properties of the songs that drive some people to repeatedly listen to them over and over? A new article in Psychology of Music explores the tunes that just won’t quit.

In the Autumn of 2013, the research team led by Frederick Conrad of the University of Michigan asked 204 men and women, mostly in their 30s or younger, what song they were “listening to most often these days”. Participants mentioned mostly pop and rock songs, but also rap, country, jazz and reggae, with only 11 songs picked by more than one listener (the most frequently mentioned were Get Lucky, Royals, and Blurred Lines, all of which were hits in the year of the survey).

Eighty-six per cent of participants listened to their song at least once a week, and almost half did so daily. Sixty per cent said that they liked to re-listen to this song immediately, with many enjoying a third or even fourth go. Participants reported having high levels of connection with their named song, with higher connection associated with a tendency to close their eyes during listening to devote the fullest attention to it.

Prompted to describe their chosen song’s effect in their own words, the participants’ descriptions suggested the songs fell into three categories. Over two-thirds were happy, energetic songs – “Pumped up! Excited! Ready to dance, sing, and love!”. For these songs, beat and rhythm were important, and almost half of people who were stuck on a happy song also reported tapping their feet, clapping their hands or drumming on the furniture during listens. This is definitely the vibe that was driving my brother’s daily house party!

The other categories were calm and relaxed (“It makes me feel at ease, calm, and helps me to put things into perspective”) and bittersweet (“It makes me feel sad. But not the bad kind of sad, and I like singing with it”). Bittersweet songs were the most likely to produce deep connections, and were also associated with a greater ability to build a “mental model” of the song, as measured by how much of the song participants felt they could replay in their head. (This ability increased with frequency of all song listens, but more so for bittersweet ones.) Bittersweet songs were listened to many more times than the other song types – on average 790 times, vs. 515 for calm songs and 175 for happy songs.

Repeated listening to songs is a bit of a riddle, given previous research that tends to bear out the classic Wundt curve, which states that a pleasurable stimulus becomes more pleasurable with familiarity until reaching a ceiling and dropping off, as happens with songs on heavy radio rotation. But our listeners weren’t being assailed with the songs against their will (only six per cent of the songs were even on the radio during that time), they were deliberately seeking out and returning to them. For some idiosyncratic reason, a particular song speaks to this particular person, and that connection provides an incentive to listen deeply to the song, which can unlock further nuance in lyrical meaning or musical richness. And the emotional payoff is reliable, much as is a mood-regulating drug, and that reliable payoff can be more important than the hit of something novel.

Why not review your top listens on Spotify, iTunes or Winamp – this is mine – and have a think about what they are giving you: a dose of energy to tackle the day, a tonic of restoring calm, or a companion to join you in walking through contradictory, complex feelings.

Extreme re-listening: Songs people love . . . and continue to love

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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