Your favorite song uses simple psychology to hook you again and again.
When I first heard the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” I was at a bar with my friends, looking to keep my buzz going. The keyboard’s repetitive riff coupled with Halsey’s powerful vocals hooked me right away. Before I knew it, I was dancing along with everyone else, spilling drinks on each other as we threw our hands up.
Producers and DJs, who are the brains behind the beats, collect big fat checks just by understanding simple psychology: The human brain loves repetition.
In “Closer,” Halsey and Andrew Taggart sing in sync with the hook about re-connecting with a flame—the lyrics match the beat, and as listeners, we remember it.
“Repetition provides our brains with familiar input,” music therapist Linda Jedrzejek of RhythmWORKS says. “Research has shown that familiar information is processed in a different location of the brain than new information. It requires less analysis and enables us to shift our attention to other parts of the musical experience.”
Jenni Rook, music therapist at Institute for Therapy through the Arts, says people look for predictability in songs. “If music is repetitive, it is easier to find the patterns,” she says. “Familiar is more fun?—?we like when we have a sense of mastery over learning something new. We feel accomplished.”
But electronic artists aren’t the first musicians to capitalize on repetition. Brilliant classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven wrote songs with basic chords and layered them with tempo changes. Philip Glass builds his film scores on drumbeat patterns and harmonic cycles.
Glass’ work influenced “ambient genius” Brian Eno, who’s worked with artists like David Bowie and The Talking Heads to create theatrical soundscapes with chord cycles and arpeggios.
And Eno’s techniques have also influenced artists like James Blake and Jamie xx, who fuse electronica, hip hop and trap to create haunting, futuristic repetitions.
When we can predict a song’s patterns, it doesn’t matter if we know the words or not, because we know when the bass is going to drop and when to throw our hands in the air. Think Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now” or MØ’s “Lean On”—their repeating formulas build up and release, a gratifying rush.
Our brains release endorphins and dopamine when we hear familiar songs—once we fall in love with a beat, we seek it out again and again. It’s for exactly this reason that many use music to relieve stress.
“There is a level of comfort in listening to music with familiar structural elements and instrumentation,” Jedrzejek says.
Electronic music festivals get a bad rap. They conjure images of youth culture, glow sticks and drug trips. And say what you will, but it’s a subculture united by the psychology of the human experience?—?of finding comfort in music.