How much does it really matter how a song tells its story?
If a song has a great story, does it really matter how the songwriter tells that story? Does it really matter how the songwriter puts that story to music? Or does the story stand on its own?
If a song has a story, does it make a difference if the songwriter obscures the story and makes the audience work for it, like Don McLean did with “American Pie”:
Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
Versus making the story is clear as day, like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”?
The Devil went down to Georgia,
He was looking for a soul to steal
He was in a bind, ’cause he was way behind,
He was willing to make a deal
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 “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels Band.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/CharlieDaniels. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
Drew Taggart of The Chainsmokers once said “We’re songwriters, so we’re storytellers”. He represents a lot of other songwriters who see no difference between songwriting and storytelling.
Sometimes, a songwriter writes a great story that touches everyone.
And sometimes, a songwriter writes a great story. And nobody cares.
“And so first we have to ask what neurologically makes a story great.” That’s Dr. Paul J. Zak. He directs the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, where he focuses on how stories gets our brains to release oxytocin, which is a chemical that makes us feel trust and empathy. After more than 12 years of research into how stories affect our brains, he’s found that 2 things really transport us into a story. Here are his words about it: “One is, I’ve got to pay attention to the story. And that sounds sort of trivial, except attention is costly metabolically. And we all seem to live in the ADD generation where we’re constantly in media that’s fighting for our attention.
“But attention’s not enough to get us to care about the story. We have to have this emotional resonance with the story that’s driven by the brain’s production of oxytocin. And so when these two things happen, when we pay attention and we’re emotionally engaged by the story a la oxytocin, then we begin to share the emotions of that story, at least that’s the case when it comes to audio & video. We see arousal responses – sweat in the palms, which you can measure with sensors, we see increase in heart rate, which tells you that you have this emotional resonance.”
A few months ago, I wanted to know how storytelling affects our brains when it comes to a specific song, so I reached out to Paul J. Zak. He replied, “I haven’t a clue, because I haven’t studied it. And so why don’t we run little ‘mini-experiment’ and try to figure out what’s going on with that song neurologically and compare that to what happens in well-designed stories, movies, advertising, etc., so we have benchmarks.”
So he ran the experiment and the results surprised me, because the winner wasn’t the song with the best story. The winner was the song that allowed the audience to really focus on the story.
So what was the experiment Dr. Zak ran?
We wanted to test “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes for how well people get immersed in the story. So Dr. Zak tested “The Piña Colada Song” against two control songs so he could figure out, not just the results, but what was causing those results. To test whether people were responding to the story or the song, we chose a control song with no story that sounded a lot like “The Piña Colada Song”. We chose “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, because (like “The Piña Colada Song”), it’s anthemic yet chill, and it has a slight Caribbean feel.
But to really know whether people were responding to the story or the song, we also wanted a control song that would focus on the story. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by Charlie Daniels Band would be perfect because the song is just a story told over music.
Once we decided on a few songs to test, Dr. Zak hooked up people to wireless sensors where he could measure the impact of stories on people’s brains and particularly when those moved people to take action.
Then he played the songs, measuring for 4 things:
One: Immersion. How long were they paying attention to the song and emotionally engaged by the song?
Two: How long was the audience in a peak immersive state, where they were paying lots of attention to the song and really emotionally engaged by the song?
Three: How many times was the audience frustrated?
And four: How many people were super-responsive to the song?
Once he set up the experiment, he let it run, and e-mailed me with the results.
And the winner is: “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.
People were highly immersed for the entire song. There were lots of moments of peak immersion and very few moments of frustration.
Now, I fully expected “The Piña Colada Song” to win. After all, it has the most interesting story, including a twist ending. But while people were immersed in “The Piña Colada Song”, the immersion was a lot lower, and there weren’t nearly as many moments of peak immersion.
Because it’s hard to recognize the story in “The Pina Colada Song”. There’s so much going on (musically) that we stop focusing on the lyrics. There’s harmony, lots of instruments, a catchy melody, there’s a lot for our brains to think about that isn’t the story. That’s not including the pop culture experiences we’ve had around “The Piña Colada Song”. When we hear this song, we might not be thinking about the song at all, much less its story. We might be thinking about when we heard a reference to this song in Shrek (“She likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain”) or when we heard this song in Guardians of the Galaxy, Bewitched, Wanted, Grown-Ups, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty… the list goes on and on. The point is: We’re probably not thinking about the story when we listen to “The Piña Colada Song”. We’re probably thinking about the music or our experiences with this song.
But “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” lets us really focus on the story. It’s just a story told over a simple instrumental part, and when people do start singing, the lyrics are clearly the center of the song. And the only time you’ve heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in a piece of popular media was when it was that boss battle on Guitar Hero III. So if you’re listening to this song, you’re thinking about the song, and if you’re thinking about the song, you’re thinking about the story, because the story is so clear.
But since we can’t really focus on the story in “The Piña Colada Song”, people were about as immersed in its story about as they were in the story they heard during “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and that song has no story! People’s brains treated “The Piña Colada Song” almost as if it had no story at all, because they couldn’t focus on the story.
Since people could focus on the story in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, it immersed people so much more than “The Piña Colada Song” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” did.
Of course, this was a small sample. They only had 7 people in this experiment. Dr. Zak speculated, “If we collected more data, things might change. But having done this for a long time, generally what happens is that small samples reflect in the larger samples.”
So if the small samples reflect in the larger samples, what does that tell us about the stories we tell?
After a sort of mini-experiment with a surprising result, I’ve learned that nobody cares about a story if they don’t know about it. I’m not saying that a song needs to sacrifice its melody to get people to focus on the story like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” did. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” did a lot of other things to make its story clear: It makes the vocals loud and clear. The singers deliver the words clearly. The song gives us very little to think about other than the story. Other songs could do the same thing to bite us in the face and say “I’m telling you a story”, even if those songs have melody.
On the other hand, I didn’t know “The Pina Colada Song” had a story until my 2nd or 3rd time hearing it. And when I didn’t know the story was there, and when the story isn’t clear, the story in a song’s lyrics isn’t going to matter to me. But if a story is clear, it can be persuasive. And as Dr. Zak told me: “stories are sort of superpowers. If you are a persuasive storyteller, you can use words rather than weapons to try to convince people to cooperate with you.”
Now, you might be wondering “What about the stories themselves? If the story in “The Pina Colada Song” were as obvious as the story in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, would it have beat out “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? I asked Dr. Zak basically that question: If you were to tell people the lyrics from “The Pina Colada Song” and then the lyrics from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, would people still be more engaged in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”?
His response: “That’s my guess. I guess it’s testable. Maybe that’s our second experiment. Maybe we should test that.”
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
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You can also support Song Appeal by visiting Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find great perks, including the full interview with Paul J. Zak.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.