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If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On

By Tim Hannan

Extreme re-listening to popular songs reflects personality type.

Music plays an important role in our lives, and new digital technologies make it possible to access just about any song at the touch of a button. So why does my teenage daughter listen to the same few songs repeatedly? As far as I can tell, it is not due to any musical merit, as the selections in question all seem to me to be indistinguishable and utterly forgettable. (In defence of my parenting, I would add that her musical taste is not the result of deficiencies in her upbringing, as she was exposed to only classical music from the time of her birth – Dylan, Sondheim and Lehrer).

The repeated re-listening to specific songs warrants an explanation, as it appears counter to expectation. A 1960s study of radio playlists had shown that when a new song was broadcast frequently its popularity increased for a time; after reaching a peak, this trend then reversed. This pattern follows the “Wundt curve”, which depicts the observation that the pleasure elicited by a stimulus increases to a ceiling, after which repeated exposure to the stimulus decreases its hedonistic value. Yet it appears that for my daughter, as well as others of her species, continued exposure does not lead to the conclusion that the music is “not so sweet now as it was before”. Why does this happen?

A team of researchers has tried to answer this question – not specifically to address my personal aural suffering but rather to explore the more general question concerning why some people want to hear the same song again and again. An American study published recently in the journal Psychology of Music asked participants to identify the song which they were currently playing most often and to respond to questions about their frequency of listening and the effect it engendered for them.

Of the respondents, 86% reported listening to their favourite song at least once a week, with nearly half stating that they played it every day; many reported listening to the song multiple times per day, every day. Around 60% said they played the song two, three or four times in a row.

The selections were mostly of the pop/rock genre, though rap, country, jazz and reggae were also reported. Only 11 songs were identified by more than one listener, and these were on high rotation on radio at the time.

The participants were asked how the song made them feel, and their responses indicated three general types: happy/energetic (69%), calm/relaxed (15%) and bittersweet/melancholic/nostalgic (16%). Those who said their song elicited happiness commented on the physical effect of its beat or rhythm – it made them move or tap their feet or hands. Relaxing songs were reported to have both a physically calming effect and to make listeners think more clearly.

The participants who repeatedly played songs in the bittersweet category were the most extreme of the re-listeners, playing their preferred song an average of 790 times compared with 515 for the calm/relaxed group and 175 for the happy/energised listeners. Of all respondents, those who listened to bittersweet songs repeatedly also reported the strongest personal and emotional connections to their preferred song, offering comments such as, “It makes me think about people and places I used to know,” and “It brings me back to a simpler time when I was young”.

The findings of the study are consistent with the idea that people’s attraction to songs reflects their individual personality, experience and attitude to life: some prefer to be either energised or relaxed, while others seek a deeper emotional experience. Those who repeatedly listen to songs that express bittersweet, melancholic or nostalgic themes may be generally more disposed to seek emotional stimulation or to reflect on past experience, and the reliability with which their preferred song delivers these effects may outweigh the decline in enjoyment that would be expected to come from repeated exposure.

Sadly, my daughter’s preference for an upbeat tempo and lyrical vacuity probably reflects an absence of nostalgia for the music of her earlier years.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.