What makes us remember what someone says?
Why do we remember the words “shut up and dance with me”, but we don’t remember the words “A backless dress and some beat up sneaks”?
The first time I heard “Shut Up and Dance”, I was at a dance where I heard 3 hours of music. And out of all that music, guess which song I was singing along to the first time I heard it. Guess which song I remembered well enough to look up later that night so I could hear it again? Guess which song I still remember from that dance?
And I’m not the only one. When I teach people to play piano, they used to ask to learn “Shut Up and Dance” more than almost any other song. And when I’m playing “Shut Up and Dance” on piano or guitar, I don’t care if I’m in a group of college students, kids, or adults – people will sing along to this song.
This song didn’t need every line to be memorable. It just needed one really memorable line, a line that made people love this song.
So why do people remember that line so well?
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 we like “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon.
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Last time, we talked about how “Bohemian Rhapsody” gave us constant doses of novelty to give us constant doses of dopamine.
But how much novelty does it really take for a song to get our attention?
It’s a lot less than you’d think. A song doesn’t need to switch to a different genre every minute like “Bohemian Rhapsody” does. That level of novelty gives us a huge dose of dopamine, as long as the song can stay familiar enough to be safe.
So what happens when a song stays familiar enough to be safe through the entire song and then gives us a single line where all they change is what’s playing behind the vocals? Because of a principle called “the Von Restorff effect”, we remember this line better if it’s unique and if that uniqueness is surrounded by a normal pattern.
In 1933, Hedwig von Restorff performed an experiment. She gave people lists of 3 similar items and one that doesn’t belong here, something like “Nicholas, Eli, crocodile, Sean”. Guess which one people remembered best? R. Reed Hunt, an expert in uniqueness and memory, said in an academic article that Hedwig Von Restorff found (and I’m quoting Dr. Hunt here) “If all but one item of a list are similar on some dimension, memory for the different item will be enhanced.” That principle has become known as the “isolation effect” or the Von Restorff effect.
So… why do our brains do that? Lots of people have presented a lot of possible explanations. My favorite one says that we spend more total time in working memory on the weird one (hence the name “total-time hypothesis”).
Like we said last week, our brains get blasted with so much information every second that we have to intentionally not pay attention to, well, basically everything. So if you’ve already noticed something, your brain doesn’t want to take the energy to notice it again… unless it changes. So when we read a list of words or listen to a song, once things become familiar, we don’t notice them unless there’s something different in there.
And once we focus on whatever’s new, we spend more total time processing it in our brains, more total time mulling it around in working memory, and we give ourselves more total opportunities for whatever’s weird to become part of our short-term memory, maybe even long-term memory.
So how does “Shut Up and Dance” make its title line weird? It’s not just because it’s using a different tune and different words. In this song, using the same melody or the same lyrics would feel a little weird for this song.
No, it’s really about what the lead vocalist is doing. It’s more about what’s going on behind him: the instruments, the backing vocalists, the things we don’t notice consciously, but that our subconscious minds are definitely noticing.
The title is surrounded by parts where the instruments and vocals don’t interact. The instruments do their thing [instruments], and the vocals do their thing [vocals], but they don’t really interact together [the two of them together]. Throughout most of the chorus, the instruments and the melody have completely different rhythms and completely different tunes. And then there’s this line, the only line in the chorus where the instruments and vocals have exactly the same rhythm.
And when it comes to the backing vocals, sometimes they’re singing in unison with the lead singer (“ooh-ooh-ooh”). Sometimes, they sing an octave higher than the lead singer (“this woman is my destiny”). And sometimes, they’re harmonizing with the lead singer (“Oh don’t you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me, I said “you’re holding back”. She said”), but this is the only line where the band is harmonizing with the lead singer and singing in unison with him (“Shut up and dance with me”).
And most of this whole song is just a wall of sound. As soon as the instruments start, we get more instruments or less instruments, but the instruments never a moment of silence for most of the song.
During the bridge, we get the only moment where the instruments drop out entirely and the only moment where the band just shouts. And what are they shouting? “Shut up and dance!”
Those differences aren’t extreme differences. They’re not changing to a new key, a new time signature, a new genre, or even a new vocal range. The melody is exactly as high in this line as it was in the last line. They’re doing nothing more than changing something as subtle what happens behind the lead singer.
But that change only works if we’re used to a normal pattern. When everything’s weird, nothing is. Even “Bohemian Rhapsody” gave us at least 30 seconds to get used to each section before it moves into something new.
“Shut Up and Dance” really takes the idea of normal patterns and runs with it. The unique line has to be surrounded by things that are pretty consistent, so the instrumentals act pretty much the same through the rest of the song. The instruments only change when we get to a new section of the song. Otherwise, they stay exactly the same no matter what the vocals are doing. Except in the title line. That way, when the instrumental part do change during the title line that change can really stand out.
When it comes to the Von Restorff effect, there has to be some sort of consistency or there’s no such thing as novelty.
Last week, we talked about how “Bohemian Rhapsody” was novel for the entire song, and how that gives us a dopamine release for the entire song. And the dopamine makes us pay attention and enjoy ourselves.
But the entire song doesn’t have to be filled with novelty to make us enjoy ourselves, to get us to pay attention, or to get us to remember a line. Novelty works just as well if only one part of the song is weird, and that part doesn’t have to be too different from the rest of the song.
The Von Restoff effect can make lyrics memorable by making them different, but surrounding them with familiarity. And “Shut Up and Dance” does that perfectly, because it gives us pretty much the same instruments and tone for the entire song, but it chooses just the right moment to be novel. That way, we’ll really remember the line: “Shut up and dance with me”
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