Once we start listening to a song, what gets us to stick around until the end?
In my episode on “Just the Girl” by The Click Five and “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne, we talked about what gets us to come back to a song once we’ve heard it the first time, but what gets us to finish listening to the song the first time?
What keeps us from just switching songs after a few notes, so that we stick around through all 4 minutes and 5 seconds of “Closer” by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey, instead of turning it off in the first 3 seconds like some people do with “Friday” by Rebecca Black?
I’m Hunter Farris, and for years, I’ve wondered “Why do we like the music we like?” So in today’s episode of Song Appeal, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “Closer” by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey.
You can find the full transcript for this episode and the show notes at SongAppealOfficial.com/Closer.
[music: “We ain’t ever getting older”]
David JP Phillips coaches people on how to make great presentations – especially on how to tell really good stories. So notice how you feel as you listen to him tell this story at TEDxStockholm:
“About 6 years ago, I received a phone call from a woman who represented one of the biggest training companies in Scandanavia, and she said, “Hey, David. We’ve got a lot of trainers in presentation skills and in rhetorics, and we would like to increase the level of all of these, and we think you are a perfect pick. Would you like to come to a meeting?”
“I’m like “Wow. I’m honored. I’d love to.”
“And I come up to Stockholm, and I’m going to their office, and just as I am going to pull the handle down, what I don’t know then is that I’m walking in to one of the worst meetings I am ever going to have in my life.”
Now, what do you feel right now?
Those are the feelings we get when we listen to “Closer” by The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey.
Now, to clarify: Suspense is not just about being on pins and needles about whether Tom Cruise is going to die in the middle of this insane stunt.
Instead, The Oxford English Dictionary defines suspense as “A state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen”, and the Cambridge English Dictionary defines suspense as “a feeling of excitement or anxiety while waiting for something uncertain to happen”.
You see, suspense can be a wonderful feeling. Do you remember being a kid and wondering “What’s in that huge present under the tree?” That’s a form of suspense where you’re feeling excitement while waiting for something uncertain to happen.
Because the suspense made them and us stick around to the end of the song and enjoy the song the whole time, because “Closer” never gives any resolution. It’s all suspense
There are two different ways music can give us closure: through the melody and through the chords.
When a melody [interrupted with an example of the melody of “Something Just Like This”] plays note 1 [example] at the end of a short musical section, but at the beginning of a measure or a 4-bar phrase – that’s an important combination: End of a short musical section, but beginning of a measure or 4-bar phrase – we feel some level of closure, and it feels like we could end the song right there.
Notice how it feels like we could end “Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay right at the end of this line: [music, ending with just the vocal track: “Oh, I want something just like this”].
Notice how it feels like we could end this song at the end of this line from “Paris” by The Chainsmokers [music, mostly just the vocal track: “If we go down, then we go down together. They’ll say you could do anything, they’ll say that I was clever”].
And notice how we could end this song at the end of this line from “All We Know” by The Chainsmokers ft. Phoebe Ryan: [music, ending with just the vocal track: “We don’t care anymore”].
But “Closer” doesn’t have any moments of resolution like this.
The first half of the verse ends on note 2 [music, ending with just the vocal track: “I drink too much and that’s an issue but I’m okay”], and when the verse does end, it ends on note 3 [music, ending with just the vocal track: “But I hope I never see them again”].
And there’s a huge pause in the pre-chorus after this line here [music, ending with just the vocal track: “I-I-I-I-I can’t stop”], which ends on note 2.
So most of the moments when the song’s structure says we might expect a resolution – at the end of the first half of a verse, the end of the verse, and a moment before a huge pause – the melody doesn’t end on note 1, so we don’t feel any kind of closure.
There are some moments of melodic resolution though, so it feels like the song could end during a few other lines like [music, just vocal track: “I was doing just fine before I met you”], or [music, just vocal track: “moved to the city in a broke-down car and”], and most importantly the end of the chorus [music, just vocal track: “We ain’t ever getting older”], when there’s closure in the melody, but no closure in the chords, it feels like there isn’t closure in the song in general.
Here’s that line from “Something Just Like This” again. Notice how the lack of resolution in the chords completely defeats the resolution in the melody: [music with instrumental track: “Oh, I want something just like this”]. It feels like the song can’t end there, now that there’s no resolution in the chords.
Notice how the lack of resolution in the chords completely defeats the resolution in the melody of that line from “Paris” as you listen to it with the instrumental track now: [music, with instrumental track: “If we go down then we go down together. They’ll say we could do anything, they’ll say that I was clever”].
And here’s that line from “All We Know” again, but this time with the instrumental track: [music, with instrumental track: “We don’t care anymore.”]. Notice the same effect: There’s resolution in the melody, but no resolution in the chords, so it still doesn’t feel like the song can end.
So what makes resolution in the chords? Kind of the same thing that makes resolution in the melody.
When songs start a measure or a 4-bar phrase [example: Chords I-V-vi-IV] on Chord I [example] at the end of a short musical section, we feel some level of closure.
Here’s an example from “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi [example].
Here’s an example from “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber [example].
And here’s one from “American Pie” by Don McLean [example].
But “Closer”? “Closer” never gives us Chord I at the beginning of a measure, or at the beginning of a 4-bar phrase. In fact, “Closer” never gives us Chord I [example] at all. Instead, the chord progression goes IV-V-vi-V [example] over and over and over again. So even if we get a second of resolution in the melody, we never get a second of closure in the chords. It never feels like the song can end. That’s part of why Drew Taggart couldn’t stop listening to that beat when he wrote it – because there’s never a good time to turn off the song. Every chance he would have to turn it off would just feel like cutting off the song.
So why does this make us stick around when we hear “Closer”? Because our brains crave… closure. Kind of like you just felt now. The psychologist Jerome Kagan once suggested that (and I quote:) “[the] resolution of uncertainty… [is a] primary [motive] that can lead to similar classes of secondary motives”. In normal-people-speak, our need for closure might just be such a deeply ingrained motivation that it fuels other motivations.
Have you ever mindlessly checked Facebook just to see if there’s anything new? Because I sure have.
Have you ever heard an argument and wanted to watch the whole thing, just to see how it goes down? I know the feeling.
Have you ever read a book and felt like you just couldn’t put it down? I know. I was a bookworm when I was a kid.
All that is our need for closure motivating us.
But what does our need for closure motivate us to do when we listen to “Closer”?
Well, I was once invited to a girl’s night – yes, I was invited to a girl’s night – and at some point in the evening, we watched the pilot episode of Downton Abbey. Tight at the end of the episode, they threw in a cliffhanger, and we all turned to each other and said “Let’s watch the next episode.” Because we needed the closure. And at the end of the next episode, there was another cliffhanger, and we turned to each other and said “Let’s watch the next episode.” And at the end of that episode? You guessed it, another cliffhanger. And this kept going on and on until we binge-watched 5 episodes in a row when we only meant to watch the pilot. Now I can hear all of tumblr collectively laughing at the idea that we binge-watched only 5 episodes and it felt like a lot. But we were only meaning to watch the pilot, and the fact that the closure alone got us to keep watching for 4 more episodes? That tells us how powerful closure is in getting us to stick around.
When “Closer” starts, there is no closure. So, just like we wanted to stick around until the end of the 5th episode on Downton Abbey, our brains want to stick around and listen until the end of “Closer” so that we can get the closure that we really hope is there at the end
Now you’re probably thinking “So is “Closer” just tricking us into sticking around without actually giving us the closure we want?” Not exactly. Because believe it or not, suspense can actually be genuinely enjoyable.
According to research done by Christopher D. Fiorillo (a professor of Neurobiology at Stanford) along with Philippe N. Tobler and Wolfram Schultz (two professors of Anatomy at Cambridge), when we start trying to guess what happens next, that uncertainty triggers a dopamine release in the brain. And after decades of listening to music, we all got really good at predicting when there would be resolution. When that resolution doesn’t happen, when we’re left in suspense, we get a dopamine release.
Do you remember the end of Inception, where we get left with this huge cliffhanger, and we all leave the theater thinking “That was awesome!” That’s the dopamine release I’m talking about from uncertainty.
Now, what’s dopamine? It’s one of the chemicals in our brain that makes us feel really good. For example: Dopamine is why dancing, eating chocolate, and exercising all feel so good. Which means that the kind of suspense in “Closer” can be genuinely enjoyable on a neurological level.
Now, were The Chainsmokers thinking about any of this? Probably not. After listening to hours and hours of interviews with The Chainsmokers, I still haven’t heard them mention suspense, lack of resolution in the melody, lack of resolution in the chords, closure, or dopamine. At the same time, this lack of resolution is a bit of a staple of theirs. Try to find any spot where you can turn off a Chainsmokers song that isn’t at the end of the song. I had to look through 5 songs to do it.
So maybe all of this was an accident. But as a friend of mine put it, “accidental awesomeness is still awesomeness.” The effect is still there, and the effect is brilliant. By never giving us resolution in “Closer”, The Chainsmokers and Halsey gave us a #1 hit for 8 solid months. It’s only the second song to ever stay at #1 for 32 weeks in a row. And it was that popular because there’s never a good time to turn it off and because we get rewarded with dopamine just because of its suspense. When it comes to “Closer” by The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey, that’s at least part of what made us start listening to this song and think [music: “I-I-I-I-I can’t stop.”]
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for the shownotes and for more episodes. You can also support this channel on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal. I have some great rewards for patrons. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day and enjoy your music.