The Psychology of Pop Music

Whether a conscious music taste or a guilty pleasure for “those days”, it’s probable that there are very few people who haven’t heard pop songs. These pop songs seem to be playing everywhere, from the “Top Hits” on Spotify to Youtube’s homepage. However, the definition of pop music has changed one too many times- and often even confused with popular music. And it is deliberately flexible. At any given time, the type of music that is identified as pop is constantly changing. For example, anyone over the age of 40 will call The Beatles pop band, and someone who’s 24 years old will tell you that One Direction is pop, but both have a completely different style of music. Pop music can hence be defined as the music that is most popular at any time, or the most accessible to the majority of the population. However, recent pop music has certain similarities that cannot be denied. There are three main reasons why pop songs today sound so similar.

One, the similarity of music gives the listeners a feeling of nostalgia. The mere exposure phenomenon, studied by social psychologist Robert Zajonc suggests that things familiar to the human brain are often more pleasant. A 2011 study that used fMRI scans to measure an individual’s preferences for familiar (vs unfamiliar) music found that familiarity seemed to be a crucial factor in emotional engagement. Familiar music also has the power to bring about feelings of nostalgia in individuals. Schulkind, Hennis, and Rubin in their 1999 study found that music caused people to remember events of their life, whether specific (like someone they dated) or general, like childhood or college life. Pop music, hence, can and does capitalize on these feelings of nostalgia. Recent bollywood remakes of older hindi songs, such as Dilbar - or even covers of songs such as The Sound of Silence by various other artists- can  help with sales and overall success of the artists.

Second, most pop music now is written by the same people. Most pop artists bring on the same slew of producers that have written countless hits before and know what they are doing. We’ve all heard Taylor Swift’s We are never getting back together and Maroon 5’s Payphone but never really thought they are similar.  Turns out both songs are written by a Swedish music production company called Maratone. When the songs are written by virtually the same people- it is easy to find familiarities in the lyrics. They may write songs based on the same themes, use similar metaphors, or even have the same implications in different songs.

Third, most pop songs are written with a formula. A study done by Percino et al in 2014 assigned a value of instrumentation complexity to 15 genres and 374 sub-genres of songs. Styles of low instrumentation complexity had generic instrument styles that could also be heard in various other genres. On the other hand, styles of high complexity were characterized by a larger variety of instruments that could not be found in other genres. The study found that album sales of a genre of music typically increase as the instrumentation complexity decreases. The study suggests that to increase commercialization and increase profits, artists generally reduce their instrumentation complexity following a simple formula.

For example, the “millennial whoop” (which refers to the melodic pattern alternating between the fifth and the third notes in any major scale) can be heard in almost every song- from Carly Rae Jepsen and Owl City’s Good Time to Aurora’s Running with the Wolves. This millennial whoop, however, can be traced back as far as Beethoven’s Fur Elise. The millennial whoop is familiar to the human brain since it’s in almost every song released in this decade. It is known to sell well, with songs using the formula charting on the both UK and US  charts. Finally, it is low in instrumentation complexity, using only two keys of a single instrument. The millennial whoop formula hence seems like a sure-shot way to success.

But if pop songs are written by a formula that is designed to make everyone a fan, why do some people still despise it? In every argument about against pop music, a few points that are sure to come up are its simplicity and its familiarity - the same points that make it famous in the first place! Pop music, especially in the millennial age has become an industry of sorts. New faces are hired to sing songs that are written and produced by the same slew of people. The genre has become almost a “comfort zone” for artists that they choose to retreat to. The biggest issue, however, is that for most people, pop songs are not artistic enough. The simplicity and familiarity, has become boring for people now, who want to be challenged.

Whether you hate it, or you love it- there is no denying that pop songs are catchy. The familiarity and low complexity of pop music is also the greatest factor of it being catchy. This was identified by David Susiman in his book Selling Sounds where he mentions that “simplicity and familiarity were vital”. The Earworm Project, a survey at the Goldsmiths, University of London was carried out on 3,000 people found that 3 of the top ten most catchy songs were by the pop singer Lady Gaga. Her song Bad Romance was the song that was named the most catchy by over 37 participants. A reason for this, the study suggests is that the song features unforgettable segments that get stuck in people’s heads, but maintains the familiarity for people to have a good initial impression. When the songs are just that catchy- the lyrics and specific words used can have a huge impact on the listener- whether or not they like the song. If the music industry wants you to hear a song, they will do everything that they can to make sure that it is playing every few minutes. Spotify will add it to playlists with more followers, youtube will constantly “recommended” the song to listeners, radios will play the song with a larger frequency and even retail stores such as Zara or H&M will play it more while you shop.

Ballantine, a professor of music, in 2013 found that gestures are ordered in sequence to form a sort of narratives. He also found that the main purpose of these narratives is to express and communicate ideas and experiences the composer or writer has. So whether or not songs are trying to, they send off a message that can act as a subtle nudge to the listener. Researchers at the University of Albany in New York conducted a content analysis of the song lyrics of the top 100 songs in 2009. They found that most songs had some sort of reproductive theme (ideas that promote producing younger offsprings, generally to promote a species growth). Country songs related reproduction to commitment, parenting, rejection and pop songs related reproduction to hooking up, sex appeal and even assurance of fidelity. Even if you just turn on the radio or start playing VH1 right now, you’re sure to be greeted with songs that explicitly mention drug use, hooking up, and sex (surprisingly also, a lot of women empowerment and self-love).

Obviously, the culture we live in shapes the music in it too- just take #SELFIE by the Chainsmokers. The word “selfie” was added to the dictionary in 2013, and the song was released in 2014. The song is a perfect example of how evolving society, language and culture influences the media that individuals enjoy. But not too long ago, a little music genre called rock and roll completely changed the way American society worked. With older people calling it the Devil’s music, to the teenagers and young adults calling it a revolution- there is no denying it that the music, lyrics, and lifestyle portrayed by rock and roll altered everything. From the way people dressed, to what they ate, and what drugs they used- rock and roll changed everything On an average, 57% of the 16 to 24 year olds of our generation are currently listening to pop music. With people calling themselves “stans” of singers, bands and artists, and trying to emulate everything that they do, the songs they sing have a huge impact on the culture of pop music listeners. Only time will tell how the music of today will shape the generation of tomorrow.

Harshi Shetty