What gets us to remember a tune?
Have you ever remembered a song well enough to sing along the next time you heard it? Maybe you didn’t know the words, but maybe you could at least hum along.
Have you ever played “name that tune”? What made you win some rounds and lose others?
One answer lies in how the melody is set up.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we live 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 “Demons” by Imagine Dragons.
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I’m going to be honest: I was going to make this episode about how “Demons” is the wrong way to write a song people will sing along with.
But then I went to the mountains of Utah on a weekend camping trip with my Church group. A few of us – probably 10 or 12 – had split off to sing around a few guitars, playing and singing those songs that everyone in my group would sing along to: “Hooked on a Feeling”, “Don’t Stop Believin’”, “Something Just Like This”, and plenty of others. I knew people would sing along to those, and I wanted to keep the singing lively as long as possible. But I had to check: Is “Demons” one of my group’s sing-along anthems? So when I ran out of the surefire songs, curiosity got the better of me, and I started to play “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. And everyone sang along as if it were a tune they’d grown up with all their lives. That’s when I had to wonder: Why do people remember the melody to this song?
One reason is because it’s riddled with something called “false sequences”, which give us a feeling of relative novelty, and that relative novelty makes the song more memorable.
You might be wondering what I mean by “false sequence” or where “Demons” uses a false sequence.
If you’ve listened to the episode about “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”, you might remember a melodic tool called a sequence, which The Oxford Companion to Music defines as “The more or less exact repetition of a melody… higher or lower”. For example, “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music plays notes 5 1 2 3 4 5 6, then brings every note one note higher so that we hear 6 2 3 4 5 6 7, then brings every note one note higher again when it gives us 7 3 4 5 6 7 8.
“Demons” is full of a type of sequence we didn’t talk about in that episode: a false sequence. In the third book of his series A Theory of All Music, Kenneth P. Langer defined a false sequence by saying it “contains some notes of the original [tune] but not all. It appears, at first, to be repeating but changes.” It falsely pretends to be repetition, then pulls the rug out from under you to reveal it was a sequence, and this kind of false sequence is the basic idea of this song’s melody.
You can hear it in the first verse when we get the same tune played twice in a row. We hear these notes on a scale: 1 1 5 2 2 and then 1 1 5 2 2. The next phrase “appears at first to be repeating” when it starts out with the same 1 1, but changes by moving the next 2 notes up a note so that instead of 5 2, we get 6 3, in a perfect example of a false sequence.
You can hear another false sequence in the chorus when we hear the notes 3 3 5 1 7. The next phrase appears at first to be repeating when it plays 3 3 5, but it changes by bringing both the next notes down when we hear 7 6.
And that’s how most of the verse and most of the chorus plays out: repeating melodies, then introducing a sequence halfway through. So while “Demons” isn’t entirely defined by false sequences, it just might define the idea of a false sequence.
Those false sequences give us a sense of what psychologists call “relative novelty”, as opposed to “absolute novelty”. Relative novelty isn’t about being exposed to all new stuff; it’s about being surrounded with things that are familiar with an occasional novel bit. It’s not about familiarity, it’s not about novelty. It’s about a mix of the two. Kind of like if you changed one little bit of your route to work or school, but kept everything else the same.
And this kind of relative novelty is what “Demons” specializes in. It knows that if you repeat everything, it gets boring. It would sound like this: [first verse where every line sounds the same]. And if you changed everything in this song, it wouldn’t feel like relative novelty. It would feel like this: [first verse, where every line is turned into a sequence]. And while absolute novelty is effective, that’s not what “Demons” is going for. This song doesn’t want to slap you across the face with something new. It wants to repeat itself and then pull the rug out from under you with a tiny dose of novelty. It wants to give you relative novelty, and it does a great job.
And that relative novelty makes this tune so much more memorable.
But that only works with absolute novelty, like how “Bohemian Rhapsody” puts the breaks on its opera section to bring in a hard rock section, or like looking at pictures of soda cans and then seeing a picture of Niagara Falls.
Dr. Düzel wrote “We thought that less familiar information would stand out as being significant when mixed with well-learnt, very familiar information and so activate the [pleasure center] just as strongly as absolutely new information. That was not the case. Only completely new things cause strong activity in the [pleasure center].”
But while relative novelty didn’t bring more pleasure, it did cause better memory. Dr. Düzel and Dr. Bunzeck tested this by showing people three groups of pictures: pictures that were all familiar, pictures that were entirely novel, and pictures that had some familiarity and some novelty. 20 minutes later, they checked how well the participants remembered those groups of pictures. They found that the mix of novelty and familiarity was 19% easier to remember. In Dr. Düzel’s words, “This study shows that [developing memory] is more effective if you mix new facts in with the old. You actually learn better, even though your brain is also tied up with new information.” In short, relative novelty is one key to memorability.
In the lab, Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Düzel found that a mixture of novelty and familiarity works as a recipe for memorability. And at camp, I found that a mixture of sequence and repetition works as a recipe for memorability, when I saw that “Demons” uses false sequences to give people the experience of relative novelty. That way, we can remember its tune better and faster. That’s one reason why we love this song.
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