“Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay – Episode 010

What gets us to sing along with a song?

I don’t know about you, but some of my earliest and fondest memories involve singing along to music, whether I was a kid singing along with “Shine” by Newsboys with my family, or whether I was a teenager singing along to “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction at a party with my friends, or whether it was just the other day when I sang along to “Overjoyed” by Matchbox Twenty with my girlfriend, singing along with music has always been a welcome part of my life.

Sometimes, the words were so hard to learn that I had to learn them one line at a time with the music turned off; my dad would call out the words and my brothers and I would repeat them back until we’d memorized them.

But when I heard “Something Just Like This”, I was singing along with the words the first time I heard them. And when I started singing along to “Something Just Like This” before I’d even heard some of the words, I just had to wonder: How did The Chainsmokers and Coldplay make this song so easy to sing along to?

 

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 “Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers & Coldplay. You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear this song at SongAppealOfficial.com/SomethingJustLikeThis. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon (where you can get exclusive minisodes and sneak peaks to episodes) at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.

 

[music: I want something just like this]

 

If you’re anything like me, you probably love singing along to music. But did you know that singing along to music can make the song more enjoyable?

Elizabeth Margulis (director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas) said that when music “mimics a kind of social experience”, “it’s experienced by many people as highly pleasurable”.

So if we enjoy music more when we sing along with it, what makes it easy to sing along?

Well, we can sing along with “Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay because the chorus is more predictable than the verse we heard just before it. And why is the chorus is easy to predict? Because it uses words we expect, and it uses them in ways we expect.

 

The song starts out with lyrics we’re not used to hearing, then moves into words we’re very used to hearing.

During the verse, the lyrics are highly poetic. Just to prove how poetic they are, I’m going to say these words as conversationally as possible, and you’ll feel that no matter how naturally I try to say them, they don’t sound like something you’d say in a conversation.

 

I’ve been reading books of old

The legends and the myths

Achilles and his gold

Hercules and his gifts

Spiderman’s control

And Batman with his fists

And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list

 

At the very least, we would be saying “on that list” instead of “upon that list”.

Contrast that with how conversational the first verse of “Honest” by The Chainsmokers sounds.

 

It’s five A.M. and I’m on the radio

I’m supposed to call you, but I don’t know what to say at all

And there’s this girl, she wants me to take her home

She don’t really love me though, I’m just on the radio

 

That sounds so much more like words we might actually hear in everyday life. The verse of “Something Just Like This” on the other hand… just… isn’t.

And statistically, the words in the verse of “Something Just Like This” just aren’t the kind of words we would hear in casual conversation.

In 2011, The Oxford University Press put out a list of the Most Common Words in English, based on the Oxford English Corpus: a collection of over 2 billion times people had used English words in everything from parliamentary debates to blog posts. Out of those 2 billion words, the Top 100 Most Common English Words were used more often than every other word in English combined. These 100 words are ridiculously common.

Out of the 37 words in the verse of “Something Just Like This”, only 19 of them are part of the Top 100 Most Common English Words. And some like Achilles, HerCUles, Spider-Man and Batman clearly wouldn’t be upon that list because they’re a whole lot less common than words like “and”, “I”, or “the”. 19 out of 37? That’s only 51%. By contrast, that verse from “Honest” has 44 words and 34 of them are in the Top 100 Most Common English Words – 77%.

Maybe that’s part of why the words in the verse of “Something Just Like This” feel more like ancient poetry than like conversation.

And right after the words feel like ancient poetry, the words suddenly turn conversational at the chorus. Notice how much these words, words that are supposed to be part of a conversation, actually sound like they could be part of a conversation:

 

She said “Where do you want to go?

How much do you want to risk?

I’m not looking for somebody with some superhuman gifts,

Some superhero,

Some fairy-tale bliss

Just something I can turn to,

Somebody I can kiss.

I want something just like this.”

 

And while saying “do do do do do do do” doesn’t exactly sound like something you would do do do do do do do in casual conversation, the chorus’s lyrics in “Something Just Like This” are statistically more likely to be said in casual conversation than the verse’s lyrics. Out of the 46 words in the chorus of “Something Just Like This”, 32 of them are part of the Top 100 Most Common English Words. That’s 70%, contrasted with the verse’s 51%.

In a sense, the words in the chorus are 19% more common than the words in the verse. That’s the difference between barely over half and more than two-thirds. If you want more specifics, check the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/SomethingJustLikeThis, where I’ve included a few files showing which words in the first verse of “Honest” and the first verse and chorus of “Something Just Like This” are part of the Top 100 Most Common English Words and a link to the list. You’ll find on those documents that the words in the chorus are so much more familiar and so much more conversational than the words in the chorus.

And interestingly enough, that gives the chorus a kind of neurological advantage. The way our brains develop skills is by creating connections between two (or more) parts of the brain called “dendrites”. The brain then draws on that connection when it wants to use the skill. The more we use that skill, the stronger the connection becomes. The stronger the connection becomes, the easier it is to draw on that connection to use the skill. Neurologically, the more we do something, the better we are at doing it.

That includes understanding words. The more frequently we hear a word, the easier it is to process that word. That’s why we recognize our own name in a crowded room: We’ve heard it so often that it becomes easier to recognize.

On top of that, the more often we hear a phrase, the easier it is to predict the next words of that phrase. To borrow the phrase from the author Malcolm Gladwell: That’s why when a sentence doesn’t end the way we expect, we feel avocado (Source: Blink). See how surprised you were there? Your brain has a kind of mental auto-correct that lets you know what the next word is before it happens, based on the times you’ve heard a certain series of words. That’s why you can finish some people’s sentences.

When we start hearing the verse of “Something Just Like This”, we start out with some unfamiliar words and our brain is scrambling to process and to predict these words.

But as soon as the chorus comes in, we go to words that are familiar, conversational, and common – words that our brains can easily understand. But it’s not just because the chorus is easy to process and predict; it’s because the chorus came after a verse that was hard to process and predict. So the chorus is so much easier than the verse that we can feel how easy it is. Mentally, it’s like downshifting on a bicycle. Our brains say “This is so much easier! I like this!”

And when the words in the chorus feel that easy to process and predict, singing along is as easy as going downhill as a bicycle.

 

But it’s not just what words are used; it’s how they’re used.

The words in the verse aren’t sung the way we speak. Not only does the song put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle when they sing “Her-CU-les”, but the song emphasizes words we wouldn’t emphasize when we speak them. In more technical words, the “syllabic stress” isn’t quite what we’d expect.

When we say these lyrics, we would say

 

The legends and the myths

Achilles and his gold

Hercules and his gifts

 

We wouldn’t emphasize the “and” in those lines when we talk. But the song does. [music]

And in the first line (“I’ve been reading books of old”), we would be emphasizing the word “I’ve”. But the song doesn’t emphasize that word. [music]

Why? Because we expect an emphasis on certain beats in the music. In music theory terms, we have certain expectations for a song’s “agogic stress”. We expect beats 1, 2, 3, and 4 to be emphasized, and anything in between those “shouldn’t” be emphasized in our minds. And when a word we think “shouldn’t” be emphasized comes on a beat we think “should” be emphasized, most songwriters emphasize the beat and the word instead of de-emphasizing the beat for the purpose of de-emphasizing the word. But when the words are emphasized unnaturally so that the beat can be more natural, it makes our brains feel like something is a little off with these words.

Contrast that with the chorus, where each syllable lands on exactly the right beat to make make the syllables we emphasize in speech the same syllables we emphasize in the song.

Here’s how we would say the lyrics in the chorus:

 

She said “Where do you want to go?

How much do you want to risk?

I’m not looking for somebody with some superhuman gifts,

Some superhero,

Some fairy-tale bliss

Just something I can turn to,

Somebody I can kiss.

I want something just like this.”

 

Notice how every syllable I just emphasized is emphasized in the song. [music]

When the syllabic stress and the agogic stress are lined up, when the syllables the music emphasizes are the same syllables we would emphasize in speech, we get to hear words the same way our brains are used to hearing them. That way our brain is really good at processing and predicting these words, not just because of what the lyrics are, but because of how the lyrics are sung.

 

When you hear The Chainsmokers talk, you realize that they’re right when they say “We’re pretty unassuming dudes”. The way they actually think is the way that we normally talk. That’s why the words in the chorus of “Something Just Like This” are so much more predictable and so much easier to process than the words in the verse. Because the words are familiar and because the chorus sings words the way we’re used to hearing them.

When the words in a song are this easy to process and predict, it’s easy for our brains to remember the chorus from the last time we heard it and to predict the next words. In other words, it’s easy to know what the words are and what the words will be, which makes it that much easier to sing along, which makes it feel like we’re singing along with anyone from our favorite singers to our friends.

And when music mimics a kind of social experience, it feels highly pleasurable. It’s the kind of thing that makes our brains say “I like this. I want something just like this.”

 

[music: I want something just like this]

 

Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you can get Patreon-exclusive minisodes and sneak peaks to episodes. We’re almost to our first Patreon goal, and once we reach our first goal, you’ll get an episode where I answer your questions about music. Again, thank you so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.

 

Thank you to the following Patreon sponsors for going above and beyond to support this episode:

Brenda Farris