How important is novelty?
We’ve talked about familiarity before on this show. We’ve looked at how “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy uses patterns of notes we’ve heard before to make the song feel more familiar. We’ve looked at how the chorus of “Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay uses common words to make the words seem more familiar. And we’ve talked about how “All The Pretty Girls” by Kenny Chesney makes its words more familiar by repeating them in just the right ways. In his book The Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson describes how important familiarity is for our survival: If you’ve seen it before, it hasn’t eaten you yet.
But novelty is just as important. Novelty contributed to our progress from tribal hunter-gatherers to world explorers with art and literature. It makes us want to learn in ways that define who we are as human beings. And it makes us want to create art that has never been made before. Novelty is why storytellers are concerned about originality. Novelty is why artists create new movements. And novelty is why musicians make songs that are completely out of the ordinary, songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris. I promised you all that once we passed our first Patreon goal, I’d put out an episode about the most requested song, so on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason we like the winning song: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/BohemianRhapsody.
You can help support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
Researching for this episode, I found a lot of people talking about how weird “Bohemian Rhapsody” is, especially at the time, when 6-minute radio songs were unheard of.
And yet as weird as this song is, a ridiculous amount of people can sing along to it. So many people can sing along to it that you might think humans are just born knowing “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
You might think “Well, we’ve just heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” enough times to memorize it. Of course we know it.” And you’d be right. We have heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” a lot of times. But why have you heard it so many times? Some DJ, radio station, or guy with the aux cord must have turned it on, which means someone must have enjoyed it enough to turn it on. And once people heard it for the first time, they needed to enjoy it enough to listen to it again. You don’t get one of the most popular songs of all time without anyone actually enjoying it. And you don’t get one of the most popular songs of all time just because people heard it enough to be familiar.
So why do people like “Bohemian Rhapsody”? It’s not in spite of its weirdness. It’s partly because of its weirdness.
We like “Bohemian Rhapsody” because novelty makes our brains feel good, so Queen starts with a novel idea for the song and then keeps giving us constant novelty.
You might have thought “Wait, novelty ,makes our brains feel good? But what about…” and you’re right. Novelty-seeking is a personality trait, like extroversion, and some people aren’t as novelty-seeking as others. My mom tries to have as little novelty as she can in her life, but on the other side of the spectrum, there was a time when I moved to a new county every few months.
But everyone has some level of novelty-seeking. Even my mom needed some more novelty in her life, but on the other end of the spectrum, there was a time when I moved to a new county every few months. And I loved it! But everyone has some level of novelty-seeking. Even my mom – who tries to avoid novelty and keep stability and familiarity in her life as much as possible -even my mom went out and bought some chickens a few years ago. She’s tried to keep everything else in her life the same ever since. You see, everyone has some level of novelty-seeking.
That’s because when we come across something new, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel pleasure. Depending on who you are, it might give you more dopamine or less dopamine, but novelty usually still triggers some amount of dopamine. When they were working together at University College London, Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel ran an experiment about this: They showed people ordinary pictures – normal areas, normal faces, normal landscapes – and would occasionally throw in an “oddball” picture. They measured those people’s brains using an fMRI machine and found that people’s pleasure centers generally lit up with dopamine when they saw something novel.
Whether you’re addicted to novelty or whether you try to avoid something new, novelty gives you some amount of dopamine.
And that dopamine is a key to knowing why people love “Bohemian Rhapsody”, because the basic idea of the song is pretty novel for a radio hit.
You’ve probably heard people say that every song on the radio goes “Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus”. Usually, songs do tweak this formula, by adding in an intro, an outro, or a pre-chorus, or any other number of parts but “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t care about tweaking the formula. “Bohemian Rhapsody” throws out the formula entirely. It has something that kind of looks like a verse? Or maybe a chorus? We don’t know. We just know that it doesn’t follow any sort of song structure.
And the individual parts of the song are pretty novel, too. How often do you hear barbershop quartets? Not very often? Maybe that’s why “Bohemian Rhapsody” starts out with a barbershop quartet. [music from the intro] ] How often do you hear opera music? Not very often? Maybe “Bohemian Rhapsody” threw in an opera section because it’s unusual. [music from the opera section]
Because that level of novelty is part of why we like this song. The basic idea of the song is so unfamiliar that our minds have to perk up and pay attention. Why? Well, you might remember in the episode about “Rewrite the Stars” from The Greatest Showman, we talked about how our brains receive 400 billion bits of information every second, but we’re only aware of about 2,000 of those bits of information, and those 2,000 bits have to be split up across 5 senses, so our brains have intentionally not pay attention to virtually everything that comes through our ears. So how do we decide which bits of information to pay attention to? One way is if it’s something we’re used to, like the sound of the air conditioner, we start to tune it out. We don’t need to pay attention to it. We’ve already paid attention to it once. We don’t need to spend the energy on that. If it’s something new, something novel, like a barbershop quartet, an opera section, or a pop song with no song structure, we pay attention. Our brains need to investigate whatever’s new and make sure it won’t kill us. And how do we pay attention? By releasing dopamine, which helps us focus and gives us pleasure when we experience new things like listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Now, if “Bohemian Rhapsody” were just 6 minutes of a barbershop quartet, it would stop being novel. If it were 6 minutes of opera, it would stop being novel. Our brains get used to things. So if “Bohemian Rhapsody” is going to give us the thrill of novelty during the entire song, it needs to change during the entire song.
Because our brains adapt surprisingly quickly when it comes to music. Your brain needs days to get used to new altitudes, weeks to get used to new routines, but just minutes to get used to new music. And when some songs give our brains the same tune over and over, our brains get used to it in seconds.
So “Bohemian Rhapsody” keeps grabbing our attention over and over by introducing new ideas over and over. We start with a barbershop quartet, but less than a minute later, the barbershop quartet has ended and a whole new genre has begun when Freddie Mercury starts playing a piano ballad. Less than 2 minutes later, we’re listening to rock music, but less than 30 seconds later, we go to the other end of the musical world and enter the opera section. Barely more than a minute into the opera section, we’ve moved into a hard rock guitar solo, but that only lasts for less than a minute before it gives way to another piano ballad, and then the song ends. We barely get time to get used to one section of the song before we get a new section of the song, a new genre to pay attention to, and a new dose of pleasurable, novelty-inspired dopamine.
Now, novelty isn’t the only reason people like “Bohemian Rhapsody”. There are plenty of other reasons. After all, you don’t make a song this popular and this enduring on novelty alone. But it is an overlooked and important reason for this song’s colossal success. Contrary to popular belief, “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t succeed in spite of its unusual structure. It succeeded partly because of its unusual structure.
That’s because we get a dopamine release when we experience something new, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” really took advantage of that idea by bathing us in novelty, from the basic concept of the song to its genre whiplash.
If we’re going to like a song, we need it to be familiar enough to feel safe. But we also need it to be “socially unconventional in an artistic way”. And describing a piece of art as “unconventional”, “unfamiliar”, “novel”, well that’s exactly what people mean [according to the Oxford English Dictionary] when they describe a song as “bohemian”
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
You can also help support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day, and enjoy your music.