What keeps things from feeling boring, even if they’re repetitive?
Have you ever been worried about someone’s attention span, and then you notice that they can pay attention to that one thing they love?
Have you ever tried to keep a toddler’s attention? I know. It’s not easy. My 2-year-old nephew just got a trampoline for his birthday, and he focused on nothing but that… for about 5 minutes. But put a toddler, or pretty much anyone else, in front of a movie, and they’ll pay attention for 2 hours!
You see, keeping someone’s attention isn’t about the amount of time you spend. It’s about how you use that time.
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, and on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “Geronimo” by Sheppard.
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Flashback with me by about a year. Somehow, I got invited to a party, and at some point, the DJ turned on “Geronimo” by Sheppard. And I stop dancing and think “Wait. Why do people like this song? How did they manage to get away with saying the same line 7 times in a row without making the audience feel bored?”
Remember when “Call Me Maybe” got so annoying after playing its chorus only 4 times in a row? Or when we got tired of hearing Justin Bieber repeat himself so many times after he said 13 words and 9 of them were “baby”? What did Sheppard do to make us enjoy hearing the words “Hey Geronimo” 7 times in a row?
This isn’t the only reason, but one reason is because this song group the repetition into phrases that are exactly as long as our brain expects. That way, we feel like we aren’t getting as many repetitions.
When we hear music, we automatically split it up into phrases in our heads.
There are a lot of different definitions of phrases. For this episode, the most useful one will be the definition that music theorist Charles Burkhart put forth. He said that a phrase is (and I quote) “Any group of measures (including a group of one, or possibly even a fraction of one) that has some degree of structural completeness.”
That phrase can be simple, like “oh-oh-oh” [from “Best Song Ever” by One Direction] or complicated like “I take the high road like I should” [from “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” by Train]. It can be long, like “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace” [from the traditional hymn “Come Thou Fount”] or something short, like “This is me” [from “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman], but we can still feel how long those phrases are and we automatically start splitting up the song into phrases as soon as we start hearing it. Listen to the first verse of “Geronimo”, and notice how you can tell exactly when each phrase ends:
Can you feel it?
Now it’s coming back we can steal it
If we bridge this gap
I can see you
Through the curtains of the waterfall
Your mind didn’t process each individual note on its own. Your mind didn’t treat each individual note as its own idea. You grouped the notes together into phrases. And your mind could automatically tell exactly when each phrase ended.
And your brain isn’t just splitting up music into phrases. Your brain is instinctively splitting up music into 4-bar phrases – sections of music that lasts 4 bars or measures. You just haven’t recognized it… yet. If you’ve ever taken a music lesson, you might have heard that the first beat of every measure is a little louder than all the other beats.
4-bar phrases take that idea to a larger scale: The first beat of the first bar is emphasized a little more than every other beat, including the first beat of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th bar.
Notice how the first beat is a little louder than all the other beats in this 4-bar phrase:
Can you feel my love?
And in this 4-bar phrase:
Can you feel my love?
But this song doesn’t have a patent on 4-bar phrases. Literally every song you ever hear uses a 4-bar phrase at some point, and most songs are nothing but 4-bar phrases. Notice how “Don’t Stop Believin’” just repeats the same 4-bar phrase over and over and over again? Notice how the first beat is louder than every other beat in these 4 bars of “I Want It That Way”: [chorus]. And “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is just a group of four 4-bar phrases!
And this is something your brain instinctively feels. The first beat of every 4-bar phrase is a little louder than every other beat in those 4 bars, and your brain starts to notice that and split up every song you hear, not just into phrases, but into 4-bar phrases.
Now, after you’ve felt 4-bar phrases in literally every song you’ve ever heard in your life, you might think it would be a little boring. But as music theorist Joseph Sowa put it, “four-bar phrases… aren’t doomed to predictability or directionlessness.”
In the case of “Geronimo”, the 4-bar phrases actually make the song more interesting. You see, our brains could think of this song as one phrase that repeats [line] and repeats [line] and repeats [line] and repeats [line] and repeats [line] and repeats [line] and repeats [line]. Whew. It’s over. Even I was getting annoyed with how repetitive that was.
But that’s not how our brains actually treat “Geronimo”. We’re so used to 4-bar phrases that we start to expect it and start to assume this chorus isn’t 7 phrases, but it’s really a 4-bar phrase [lines] followed by another 4-bar phrase [lines]. Now, that’s still repetitive, but it’s not nearly as repetitive.
Think about it: The more often you experience something, the more boring it gets. If I ate the same thing every day, I would probably start to hate it. But if I ate the same thing once a week or once a year, it would be a treat. And even though we’re getting these lines more often, our brains are experiencing this song as a group of 4 bars, so instead of feeling like we’re getting the same phrase 7 times, we feel like we’re hearing this phrase only twice. And instead of feeling like we’re hearing it every measure, we feel like we’re only hearing this phrase every 4 measures.
It’s a musical version of something psychologists call “Gestalt theory”. It’s the theory that our brains try to perceive things as one great whole, instead of as a group of parts. When we see a group of building blocks in the shape of a house, it’s a whole lot easier to think of those as 1 house than as 736 bricks. When we see a book, it’s a whole lot easier to think of it as a single book than as 531 pages. And when we hear a song, it’s a whole lot easier to think of it as a group of 4-bar phrases than it is to think of it as individual notes or even individual smaller phrases, especially when every single song we’ve ever heard uses 4-bar phrases.
You see, when it comes to keeping someone’s attention, it’s not about how much time something takes. It’s about how you use that time. Because things feel less boring if people’s brains can split up repetitive things into fewer, larger groups, and if people can see the repetitive things as part of one big whole. When songs set up this barrier to boredom, we can enjoy the repetition and familiarity to say “Geronimo”.
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Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day, and enjoy your music.