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What happens to your brain when you listen to a summer hit

There's a reason why we all seem to agree on the hit of the summer. It turns out there's a very specific formula for creating a chart-topper.
Image: 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2 - Day 3
The Billboard-topping single "I Like It" performed by J Balvin, Cardi B and Bad Bunny is on track to be the hit of summer 2018.Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for Coachella

What does summer sound like?

For me, right now, it sounds like “I Like It,” the Billboard-topping single by Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin. It’s a ferocious beast of a pop song with blaring horns, sizzling lyrics, a boisterous Latin-influenced beat and an insanely catchy hook — and it’s everywhere. I hear it not only on mainstream radio when I’m driving, but blasting out of other people’s cars when they’re driving. I hear it in the supermarket, the bodega and at the gym. This past weekend it played a couple times at a barbecue I attended. Maybe it’s a stretch to say it’s definitively the sound of summer, which ushers in a slew of shiny mega hits every year, but it’s definitely on the soundtrack of summer 2018, along with songs like “In My Feelings” by Drake and “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 featuring Cardi B.

Dynamic pop music is being churned out all year long, but there’s something about summer that makes certain new songs stand out more incandescently, delivering them to the level of seasonal anthems that we all know and love (or can’t stand). Intrigued by the possible science behind this phenomenon’s Director of Science, Kevin J.P. Woods, PhD, analyzed what these tunes of summer have in common in an effort to determine why they’re such slam dunk hits.

The ingredients of a smash hit single

Woods dissected the compositional factors of several smash hits: "God’s Plan" by Drake; "Nice For What" by Drake, "Finesse" by Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B,"The Middle" by Zedd, Maren Morris, Grey, “Controlla" by Drake, “Fitness” by Lizzo and Cardi B’s "I like It".

In his appraisal, all these songs shared the following qualities.

  • Vocals that dominate. “Human voices are important in our lives, so in auditory neuroscience we have a concept called salience used to refer to the phenomenon of things grabbing your attention,” explains Woods. “The voice is particularly known to grab your attention, relative to other sources of sound at same volume or frequency. Most pop music showcases the human voice, but this is particularly true of summer hits, since often the relevance to the season is most apparent through the lyrical content.”
  • Powerful percussion that doesn’t inhibit the vocals. “Aside from the obvious and important musical function of driving the beat, having percussion as the primary instrument helps grab your attention, but does so without making the lyrics hard to understand, as can happen in rock or metal,” says Woods, noting that the sound of a drum also sends a quick and fleeting bolt of acoustic energy that signals a the brain’s response to change. “The more sudden the change, the more it grabs your attention.
  • Sparse or lowered instrumental backing. The song “I Like It” has a lot going on instrumentally, but even this tune, like the others Woods analyzed, features “instrumental parts that sit outside the frequency region inhabited by the vocals and that are musically simple” says Woods. “This allows the vocals to dominate the track without getting lost in other sounds, making the lyrics easier to understand.” Our brains appreciate this compartmentalization, if you will, because when sounds contain the same frequency they may be rendered indistinguishable, Woods explains, adding that a similar effect happens “when you try to listen to two conversations on either side of you at the same time — the information is confusing to track all at once.”
  • Breaks, drops, surprise transitions and shock value. “Breaks are brief silent gaps in the music, which are surprising and build suspense until the sound returns,” says Woods. “Drops are moments when new instruments burst onto the scene, often with dramatic bass and rhythmic ferocity. Transitions between sections within a song can surprise the listener with textural or stylistic contrast. All three of these devices surprise the audience and drag our attention to the music. Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ begins and ends with sections that are radically different than the main body of the track, making for incredible shock value.”

Pop music and summer naturally go together

My question after hearing all this was, “Wait — doesn’t all mainstream pop music use these principles?” Generally, Woods agreed that, yes, it does, but adds that these summer hits take these intrinsic pop values to the max, leaving little room for any experimentation that could interfere with the tried and true essentials.

But there’s another core aspect to consider other than what the song is doing, and that’s what we’re doing. In the summer, with its long days and warm nights, we tend to be especially apt to mingle, and pop music pairs well with communal behavior.

“Music is inherently a social phenomenon that we share with others,” says Michael Grabowski, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of communication and Manhattan College and the editor of Neuroscience and Media. “The fact that in summertime people are more likely to get together and stay out late means more opportunity to connect with others, and when doing so with music, you can make [positive] associations between the music you're listening to and the emotions you're having while socializing.”

Your brain loves a combination of predictability and surprise

Connecting with people while listening to upbeat, melodic pop music may be extra satisfying because (whether we intellectually like pop or not), our brains like the painless puzzle of a pop song.

Pop songs use a combination of repetition and novelty so your brain can recognize the pattern quickly which is what the brain is made for.

“Pop songs use a combination of repetition and novelty so your brain can recognize the pattern quickly which is what the brain is made for — to predict what comes next,” says Grabowski. “A pop song has a pattern of sounds: a melody, (which is overarching commonality to a pop song), usually four or less chords, simple chord progressions, and the verse/chorus structure. This structure lets you know what is coming next. Often these songs will have a bridge, which introduces a different tempo and different set of chords that are new and novel. So now we’re paying attention because the pattern has changed. Then, we conclude with the chorus, which is satisfying because we’ve returned to the pattern. That gives us a little release of dopamine, and is partly why pop music is so appealing.”

Can’t stand to hear it again? Your brain is tired of solving the puzzle

One common grievance with these summer hits and other pop songs we’ve heard over and over again is that we become tired of them. Why is that? Does our brain have some limit on how many times it can enjoy a predictable pattern before it gets bored?

“This feeling that you’ll pull your hair out if you hear that song again (which I experience with ‘Let It Go’) is a classic case of being exposed to a pattern so often you've completely internalized it and committed it to auditory memory,” says Grabowski. “If you keep hearing it over again you won't want any more exposure to it.”

If you’re sick of the song, give it a few years

But unlike with Christmas music, which we may dread just thinking about because we’ve heard it so dang much, we probably won’t react negatively to a pop hit we once loved if we let it rest for a number or years.

“If you go away from a song and then come back to it years later you'll be retrieving that memory from distant past and likely have a nostalgic feeling,” says Grabowski. “Most likely, you’ll remember the first time you heard it and realize how much you once loved it.”

I’m just about reaching that point of needing to take a good long break from some of these summer hits, but it’s nice to know that a couple years down the road, I may return to the joy I felt when I first heard them.


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