How powerful is a really good rhythm?
I got my first taste of cognitive psychology when I was 14. My dad decided to teach a small Psychology class out of our home, a class that started my love for psychology. To illustrate a point, Dad asked everyone to stand and he started stomping his feet and clapping. Then he kept stomping. And clapping. Until everyone joined in. When one person started singing [music:] “We will, we will rock you”, everyone joined in until we were all singing in unison: [music:] “We will, we will rock you. Rock you.” All of that was something everyone in the room caught onto instinctively, no matter how few times we’d heard the song.
10 years later, I sat in the crowd, watching the US DanceSport National Championship, literally the Super Bowl of ballroom dance. One dance troupe of probably 16 people took to the floor and started their group routine: a medley of Queen songs. After a few minutes of captivating choreography, precise performance, and tight transitions, their medley moved into “We Will Rock You”. The entire troupe started to stomp-stomp-clap, and within seconds, the crowd joined in until an entire theatre was filled with the sound of stomp-stomp-clap.
Anyone could pick up on this rhythm. Anyone could join in. And people could feel united as a class and as a crowd. That’s the power of a really good rhythm.
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 we like “We Will Rock You” by Queen.
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Right now, I’m a Psychology student at Brigham Young University, where they have a Testing Center. That’s right, they have an entire building just for taking tests. That makes me wonder why teachers make us take tests in the first place.
[IW:] “the reasons teachers make us do tests, believe it or not is that it forces us to practice the testing effect” That’s Isaac Wu, a Neuroscience student, also at Brigham Young University, and a huge fan of the Testing Effect. [IW:] “As a student, I try to use my time as efficiently as possible, and the Testing Effect has really helped me learn the material in the most efficient amount of time and be able to do other things like entrepreneurship, or leisure reading, or anything else like that.”
But this isn’t just a practical piece of psychology for educators. It’s also useful for musicians and music listeners. Why? Because the Testing Effect helps us remember music, like “We Will Rock You”.
So what is the Testing Effect? The idea started over a hundred years ago, a group of researchers assigned children ages 8-13 to study short biographies from the book Who’s Who In America. Some of them spent the whole time rereading the biographies so they could get exposed to the information as much as possible. Others would put down their books during study time and start repeating the information to themselves. Then all the participants wrote down what they remembered. Guess which group remembered the biographies best? The ones who tested themselves.
And that was just the first experiment on the topic. [IW:] “countless studies throughout history have been done involving pre-K students to pre-med students and beyond”, and they all point to one conclusion: If you want to remember something, test yourself on the information.
Why does this work? Imagine knowledge as a treasure chest in your mind. [IW:] “So when your teacher outlines the steps of photosynthesis on the board, or when you read about Plato’s Cave in your philosophy text, you’re being shown pictures of the treasure chest. You can keep looking at these pictures, and… it’ll make you feel like you’ve mastered the material, when in reality, you just know how to recognize the treasure chest when it’s presented to you.” But what happens when the pictures are taken away, when you go home, and you need to remember the information some other time? If you want to access the knowledge once it’s in your head, you need to learn how to get to the treasure chest on your own instead of just learning how to recognize the treasure chest when you see it. “And these treasure hunts are called retrieval practices or tests. And that’s how we learn things for good.”
You see, getting a memory into your head is only the first step of remembering something. The second step is pulling it out. Once you get information in, it’s not leaving. The question isn’t “How do you drill the information further into your brain?” The question is “Can you access that information?”
When I served as a full-time missionary, my companion and I visited and taught people in their homes… and I had a terrible sense of direction. My ability to get lost was almost legendary. I could always recognize the house when we got there, but usually I just trusted my companion to have the directions memorized. Well, one day, my companion asked me to lead the way, and told me he wouldn’t give me any directions. I spent the next two miles saying things like, “This looks familiar”, “This looks like the right turn”, and “I have no idea where I am. I’m going back to somewhere I recognize and starting from there.” And when I turned around, my companion shook his head and said “follow me”. A few feet and a left turn later, and there was the house we needed. I could recognize the house when I saw it. But I needed more than just “how to recognize the house”. I needed to know how to get there.
In the same way, if you and I want to get good at retrieving information, it’s not good enough to just recognize the information when we see it. We have to practice taking the neural pathways and the mental steps to get to that information and pull it out of your brain.
In short, the Testing Effect is bit of a cognitive cheat code: If you want to remember something better, test yourself on it.
IW: “And “We Will Rock You” believe it or not, invites you to practice this principle.” It invites you to test yourself on the rhythm by doing the rhythm yourself. It keeps the rhythm so simple that you feel like it’s easy to do it yourself. It gives you a rhythm with no instruments so you don’t need any equipment. [IW:] “And that only sends one message to the listeners, and that’s “Kids, try this at home”.” And that’s exactly what we do, “whether that’s on the bleachers at a football game, or at the dinner table, or of course, on the dance floor.” And every time we join in, we test ourselves on the rhythm and we get better and better at retrieving and recalling that rhythm. [IW:] “And soon a consecutive thump-thump that even remotely resembles the timing of the song will leave anyone with an impulse to clap, and that’s after hearing it only once.”
And since the Testing Effect works best when you give yourself some time in between tests, so every time we listen to “We Will Rock You” and stomp-stomp, we get better at retrieving and recalling this rhythm, and we get more practice travelling the neural pathways to memory lane.
The Testing Effect is nothing new. 2300 years ago, Aristotle wrote: “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”
But “We Will Rock You” takes this psychological shortcut and turns it into its battle cry: Its rhythm is simple enough and short enough that everyone wants to join in. And every time we join in, we test ourselves on this song and remember it better.
Was this intentional? Maybe. The Testing Effect had existed for decades before Queen wrote “We Will Rock You”. But if I were to guess, I don’t think the members of Queen said “If we do this, that will trigger the Testing Effect and people will remember the song better.”
But even if all of this were intentional, I don’t think that would be tricking the audience, or trying to get our money. There’s a scene in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody where Brian May pitches this rhythm. When Freddie Mercury asks “Will you please tell me why you’re not playing any instruments?”, Brian May replies “I want to give the audience a song that they can perform. Let them be part of the band. So what can they do? Imagine thousands of people doing this in unison.” Whether that story is true or not, it really shows what this song did. This song united people all over the world for decades, and united people in my dad’s psychology class in the suburbs of Arizona.
That’s the power of a really good rhythm.
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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.
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