What makes us recognize exactly what words someone’s saying?
Take this line for example: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club” (Fight Club).
Even if you’ve never heard it before, you probably understood every single word in that line, and you could probably recite it back to me perfectly.
But a lot of memorable quotes like that happen when there aren’t many noises to distract us. So if we’re going to find out what really increases listening comprehension, let’s take a look at words that are surrounded by a lot of noises. What makes us understand someone’s words even if there’s something in the way of us understanding?
“Some Nights” by fun. had a lot getting in the way of us understanding, and yet everyone I knew could sing along with it. So what makes us understand the exact words they’re singing in this song?
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 “Some Nights” by fun. You can find the full transcript for this episode and the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/SomeNights. I’ll be including some very helpful resources in the shownotes.
[Music: “Some nights, I stay up cashing in my bad luck.”]
In late 2012, I was in high school, my friends were in musical theatre, and “Some Nights” was in the Top 10. And its popularity was pretty obvious: Every party I went to, they played “Some Nights”, and every time “Some Nights” came on, people started singing along. It was almost the “Don’t Stop Believin'” of late 2012.
It had good reason to be popular: It used the pentatonic scale well (we’ll talk about that more in another episode), it had an interesting guitar part, it had a memorable percussion section, and as one of its songwriters (Jack Antonoff) put it, it was different enough from other songs of the time that it stood out enough to become a hit.
But today, let’s take a look at something that most songwriters don’t think about when they’re writing music: How many syllables each words has.
Now you’re probably thinking “There’s no way that could help this song become a Top 10 hit.” But the number of syllables in each word really affected “Some Nights” in a way the song needed if it was going to reach the Top 10.
Because at first glance, it’s a little too different to become popular. “Some Nights” didn’t care about following the rules of songwriting, and it shows. “Some Nights” throws out one of the most traditional and fundamental ideas of pop music: song structure. Instead of the standard Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus structure that we’re used to, there’s something that kind of resembles a verse if you squint at it, and something that kind of resembles a chorus if you close one eye, but “Some Nights” seems more interested in flowing from one musical idea to the next than revisiting old ideas. If it does revisit old ideas, it’s almost more interested in making a subtle reference to what the song did before than actually having a “verse” or a “chorus”. And with a structure that unusual, you wouldn’t expect to recognize the words. After all, there’s just not enough repetition to get us exposed to the song enough to understand what the words are in the midst of the war drums and the guitar and all the stuff that’s happening in this song.
And yet every one of my friends knew the first section perfectly.
So how do the number of syllables affect us? And what effect does that have on “Some Nights”? And is that some kind of “rule” of pop music?
Well, believe it or not, part of the success of “Some Nights” was because the lyrics were comprehensible because the number of 1-syllable words makes it easier to understand what words someone’s saying.
Let’s take a closer look.
A few months ago, I noticed that the first 79 words of “Some Nights” (everything before the first “whoa-oh-oh”s) had only 3 words with more than 1 syllable: “cashing”, “castle”, and “anymore”. That means 96% of the words had just one syllable.
So I approached David Eddington, a professor who specializes in “psycholinguistics” (how the way we say we say something affects the brain), and I asked how much the number of 1-syllable words matters. He explained that 1-syllable words are easier for our brains to process, partially because, well, they’re shorter, so they take less time to process. And second because according to a linguistic principle called “Zipf’s Law” (that’s Zipf with a Z-I-P-F), the most common words in English are the 1-syllable words, which means that our brains got really good at processing those words.
To illustrate: When President John F. Kennedy said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, exactly 80% of the words had only one syllable. Maybe that’s one reaon why we remeber that quote almost word-for-word more than 50 years later.
And which of these lines do you understand better? This line from “Young” by The Chainsmokers: [music: “We both know I go too far, like when I wrecked your car and almost fought your father when he pushed me in the yard”] or this line from “Whatever It Takes” by Imagine Dragons [music: “Hypocritical, egotistical, I want to be the parenthetical hypothetical”]? The Imagine Dragons line is only 9 words, but a mere 56% of those words have just one syllable. The Chainsmokers line has 25 words – that’s almost 3 times as many words – but it’s so much easier to understand, partially because 92% of those words have only one syllable.
Now, that’s not meant to insult Imagine Dragons or anyone else. Words with more than one syllable have their own useful psychological effect. After all, if words with more than one syllable only had the effect of being more difficult to understand, humans probably wouldn’t have started using multi-syllabic in the first place. The reason I used that line from Imagine Dragons – and the only reason I used quotes from The Chainsmokers, President Kennedy, and (earlier on) Fight Club – was only to show clearly that 1-syllable words are easier for our brains to process and understand.
So how well does “Some Nights” do on one syllable words? How easy is it for our brains to process and understand the words of “Some Nights”?
Throughout the song, 92% of the words have one syllable, but what does that mean? Is that a lot? Is that a little?
What matters here is the context of the song. We usually hear music in the context of other music. When we hear music at a restaurant, at a party, at a store, on the radio, or even on a playlist at home, we don’t just hear one song. We hear one song after hearing another song. And the last song we heard affects how much we like the song we’re hearing now. That’s why DJs play a fast song at a dance after playing a slow song.
“Some Nights” was in the Top 10 for the last 4 months of 2012. During that time, if you ever heard “Some Nights” on the radio (or any other playlist of popular music of the time), you probably heard it around the other 29 contemporary Top 10 hits. On average, about 85% of the words in those 29 other Top 10 hits had just one syllable, while 92% of the words in “Some Nights” were monosyllabic.
Now, I am not trying to draw some kind of correlation between having a higher percentage of 1-syllable words and being more popular. “Some Nights” peaked at #3, which is really good, but it doesn’t make it exemplary. It doesn’t make it something that every songwriter should try to do so they can have a #1 hit.
No, I’m talking about something slightly different here. I’m talking about how easy it is to comprehend the lyrics of “Some Nights”.
Because you probably heard “Some Nights” after hearing a song with about 85% 1-syllable words. In fact, if you take a more specific look at the other 29 Top 10 hits, you notice that 17 of them have between 79 and 86% 1-syllable words. So if you heard “Some Nights”, you probably heard it after a song with fewer 1-syllable words. After a couple songs with fewer 1-syallbe words, our brains get used to the amount of mental effort that it takes to process those words. So once we’re used to the amount of mental effort it takes ot process (on average) 85% 1-syllable words, our brains hear “Some Nights”, a song that requires less mental effort, because it has 92% monosyllabic words, and our brains don’t have to work as hard. that 7% difference isn’t much, but it’s effective. It makes listening to “Some Nights” give us the same feeling as downshifting on a bicycle. Our brains start thinking “This is so much easier! I like this!”
If you want more specifics, check the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/SomeNights. I’ve included a pdf with the lyrics of “Some Nights” and another with the lyrics of all the other Top 10 hits of the time, showing how many 1-syllable words are in each song through color-coded lyrics and the exact number and percentages of 1-syllable words for each song. Do you know how hard that was to make?
Now, some people might think “Is this some kind of “rule” of songwriting?
Short answer? No.
First: I am not trying to say that a song has o have a high percentage of 1-syllable words in order to become a hit. That Imagine Dragons song I referenced with 56% 1-syllable words during that line was in the Top 40. And Ross Golan, a BMI Pop Songwriter of the Year, observed “What you get with what the Alanises or what Julia Michaels is doing is, like, you can use multi-syllabic words… and it’s totally OK” (“And the Writer Is…” Andy Grammer). No, I am simply observing the effect that using 1-syllable words has on an audience. That effect happened to be necessary to push “Some Nights” over the edge of the Top 10 (more on that later). Multi-syllabic words have their own effect, too. Otherwise, Alanis Morisette, Julia Michaels, and all the others wouldn’t use them.
Second: The 7% difference wasn’t the only reason “Some Nights” was in the Top 10. But it was an important reason that a lot of people overlook.
Third, and most importantly: 85% is not some magic number of 1-syllable words that’ll make a song a hit. That would be a nice idea, and that’s a nice, round number, but it’s not true. That average may very well change depending on the time period or the genre. More importantly, 85% was just the average of that time period. The lowest (“Whistle” by Flo Rida) clocked in at only 71%, 14% lower than the average. And the highest was a tie between “Don’t Wake Me Up” by Chris Brown and “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars, each of which clocked in at 93%, 8% higher than the average.
So please, do not take anything in this episode as a “rule” of songwriting. I am simply observing an effect that made “Some Nights” more comprehensible where it really needed to be more comprehensible, and it may very well work for other songs, too.
Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait.
Did I just say that “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Don’t Wake Me Up” each had a higher percentage of 1-syllable words than “Some Nights”?
If “Some Nights” didn’t have the highest percentage of 1-syllable words, why is this episode on “Some Nights” instead of “Locked Out of Heaven” or “Don’t Wake Me Up”?
The reason is because the effect is so much more obvious with “Some Nights”.
If you gave people another song with as little repetition as “Some Nights”, they wouldn’t remember any of the lyrics afterward. “Some Nights” never says any phrase (other than “whoa-oh-oh”) more than 3 times during the song. And when it does repeat a phrase 3 times, it uses all 3 repetitions at once by saying the phrase 3 times in a row. For comparison, “Don’t Wake Me Up” says the words “Don’t wake me” thirty-five times.
On top of that, “Some Nights” just didn’t sound like a normal hit pop song of late 2012.
It didn’t sound like the synth-heavy hip-hop and pop songs of the time like “Wide Awake” [by Katy Perry] or “Payphone” [by Maroon 5 ft. Wiz Khalifa].
It didn’t sound like the acoustic indie songs of the time like “Home” [by Phillip Phillips] or “Somebody That I Used to Know” [by Gotye].
And it didn’t sound like the alternative rock jams that “Everybody Talks” [by Neon Trees] and “Locked Out of Heaven” [by Bruno Mars] had capitalized on.
To be honest, it sounded more like somebody had re-recorded a forgotten Queen track from 40 years earlier and thrown on some war drums.
“Locked Out of Heaven” or “Don’t Wake Me Up” could have easily been Top 10 hits even if they hadn’t had such a high percentage of 1-syllable words. But “Some Nights” owes at least part of its success to the fact it’s so comprehensible because it has 7% more 1-syllable words than the songs we would be hearing before it. And “Some Nights” was such an unlikely hit that it demonstrates that the number of syllables in each word has an effect on us, the same way that it does in quotes from movies and speeches. That higher percentage of 1-syllable words made us enjoy the song more by making the song easier to understand and remember. Of course, this isn’t a “rule” of songwriting, but the point still stands that 1-syllable words are a lot easier for our brains to process.
And when we can understand what words someone’s saying, listening to their words becomes a lot more, well, fun.
[music: “whoa oh whoa oh whoa oh whoa oh whoa oh oh”]
Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, you can check us out at SongAppealOfficial.com. You can also support this channel on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal. Talk with you guys soon, and in the meantime, enjoy your music.
Instrumental track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5zlYcZ0110
Fight Club quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dC1yHLp9bWA&t=23s
John F. Kennedy Quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwFvJog2dMw