Will: Hello, and welcome to EurekaNerd, or at least, our part of this show. Hi, I’m Will, and I am a science communicator.
Leah: My name’s Leah, and I started doing science communication when I started hanging out with him, but on an amateur basis.
Will: And we are here with our little bit of science about the Barenaked Ladies, because whilst a lot of these lyrics were improvised, some of the lyrics are grounded in facts, like the location of the Robbie soccer tournament in the Birchmount stadium, the fact that Kurosawa does make films, and if you tilt your head to the side (as the third line in the song indicates) you might get taken a bit more seriously.
Leah: No, it’s not necessarily that a head tilt will make you be taken more seriously, but it does make you more approachable and possibly easier to look at?
Will: This research coming to you from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who have found that just by kind of tilting your head, to one side or the other, people do connect with you a bit more. They illustrate this at the top of their research with a rotating Mona Lisa, just kind of spinning around like a commemorative dish.
Leah: It’s been known for a long time, if not necessarily publicized, that when looking at a face, people tend to focus on the left side (it’s known as “left gaze bias”) but it turns out this effect disappears when you’re looking at a face that’s tilted, and instead the tendency is to focus on the eye that’s highest.
Will: Nicholas Davidenko, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that we take in faces holistically, all at once, not feature-by-feature, but no one had studied where we look on rotating faces. Hence, the spinning Mona Lisa.
Leah: I’d say she’s ‘oscillating’.
Will: “Waggling”. A waggling Lisa. So how much tilt does it take to get rid of that left-gaze bias? It doesn’t turn out to be very much at all, as minor as 11° off-center, he reports in this press release. Whereas if you want to be doing a good communication job with your face, then you can go too far.
Leah: The press release does spell that out for us: The upper-eye bias is strongest when the head is at 45° and disappears entirely it reaches 90°. And I quote “90° is too weird”.
Will: But it does offer that somewhere along the line between tilting your head and rotating it entirely like an owl, you might be able to have some therapeutic use for this information. For example, if you have a lazy eye or “amblyopia”, then tilting your head so that your stronger eye is higher than your weaker eye will help direct attention and may improve confidence and communication.
Leah: Davidenko is also interested in potential applications for people with autism. It may be something worth employing if you’re interacting with a lot of autistic people and want to make it easier for them to look at your face.
Will: If you want to hear more from Davidenko and all of this face-tilting research, you can find it in the journal, Perception, in an article titled “The upper-eye bias: rotated faces draw fixations to the upper” with co-authors Hema Kopalle and the late Bruce Bridgeman. Or if someone in your life is tilting their head to the side and telling you that they’re angry, you should probably listen. And if you’d like to hear more weird science and the weird people behind it doing weird things with their faces, you can find us at EurekaNerd.com or @EurekaNerdCast on Twitter.
Thanks, Will. Thanks, Leah. And now, on to the show.
How powerful is a song’s structure?
I’m not talking about a song being formulaic or plodding aimlessly through the same Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus you’ve heard in every other song. I’m talking about how one section of a song changes how we think of what came before and comes next. To illustrate that kind of structure, let’s talk about a song that doesn’t use Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus and definitely wasn’t trying to use any particular formula, but still uses each part of the song to affect how we think of the surrounding sections, a song that my friend, Jimmy Murray, the host of the Kid Friendly Joke of the Day podcast, still loves 20 years later.
“Jimmy Murray here, and for me, “One Week” was the seminal song of 1999.” He called it a “personal favorite and just about the only song people can coax me into doing at a karaoke night.”
“This song will always hold a special place in my heart, and I’m so happy you’re doing an episode on it.”
Welcome to the Season 2 finale of Song Appeal, the show 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 wrap up the last season and take the ideas of the last few episodes a bit further by taking a look at one reason why we like “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, references, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/OneWeek.
Thanks so much to my patrons for making this show possible. If you want to support this show, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks.
If you like what you’re hearing on Song Appeal, you’re definitely going to like Soundfly’s online music course, “Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords”. You’ll get to learn what different chords do and how to put those chords into a progression that makes the listener feel how you want them to feel, so your songs can have as emotional of an impact as possible.
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Visit Soundfly.com and use the promo code SONGAPPEAL10 at check out (the words “Song Appeal” are in all caps) to get 10% off of any Soundfly course.
Paul Hekkert’s full-time job is figuring out why people like what they like. He’s the head of the design aesthetics group at Delft University of Technology, and a co-author of a paper that tries to create a unified model of aesthetic pleasure in design. That’s the name of the paper: “Towards a unified model of aesthetic pleasure in design”. This model was based around the idea that “in principle any person should display higher aesthetic appreciation for products… that strike a balance between unity and variety, typicality and novelty[,] and autonomy and connectedness”. That’s an exact quote from the paper, a quote that perfectly sums up most of this season of Song Appeal.
You see, a lot of this season has focused on the question “How does a song strike a balance between familiarity and novelty, between giving us what we’re used to and giving us something new, and how does a song strike that balance in a way that will make us like the song more?”
But when we talk about familiarity and novelty, someone will probably respond with a meme that asks
After all, familiarity and novelty are on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. A song can mix the two principles together. So how can a song reap the benefits of familiarity and the benefits of novelty?
One example we looked at was “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon, which gives us familiarity and then novelty in just the right amounts to trigger something called “the Von Restorff Effect”, a psychological phenomenon that makes us remember the novel bits better when they’re surrounded by familiarity. And we’ve talked plenty more about familiarity and novelty this season.
Today, let’s talk about novelty that leads into familiarity. In his book, The Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson proposed: “This might be the most important question for every creator and maker in the world: … Is it possible to surprise with familiarity?” “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies shows us one way a song can surprise with familiarity when it gives us unfamiliar tunes, then follows them up with familiar melodies. That shift from novelty to familiarity makes it easier to enjoy this song.
“One Week” opens with a chorus that makes its melodies familiar by following a simple pattern: Play the same tune 4 times:
One week since you looked at me
Five days since you laughed at me
Three days since the living room
Yesterday you’d forgiven me.
In between each of those tunes, play this tune:
Cocked your head to the side and said I’m angry
Get that together come back and see me
I realized it’s all my fault, but couldn’t tell you
Still be two days till I say I’m sorry.
After switching back and forth between the same 2 melodies four times in a row, this chorus has set a standard for familiarity that we expect the rest of the song will follow.
But the song immediately moves from its “catchy chorus [to] a rapid fire word verse” (to quote CollegeHumor). And that verse is a whole lot more novel.
Remember how the chorus bounced back and forth between 2 melodies? This verse uses 3 melodies. And it isn’t interested in just switching back and forth between tunes. It still puts the melody in some kind of order, but that order feels like it’s trying to make you forget that you’ve heard this tune before. It plays almost exactly the same tune twice. Once it sounds like this:
Hold it now and watch the hoodwink
As I make you stop, think
You’ll think you’re looking at Aquaman
I summon fish to the dish,
Although I like the Chalet Swiss
I like the sushi
Cause it’s never touched a frying pan
And another time it sounds like this:
Bert Kaempfert’s got the mad hits
You try to match wits
You try to hold me but I bust through
Gonna make a break and take a fake
I’d like a stinkin, achin shake
I like vanilla. It’s the finest of the flavors
But after that chorus, your brain is used to switching back and forth between two tunes, not hearing a melody twice (“Bert Kaempfert’s got the mad hits. You try to match wits”), another melody once (“You try to hold me, but I bust through”), another melody two-and-a-half times (Gonna make a break and take a fake. I’d like a stinkin, achin shake. I like vanilla”) and then that second melody again (“It’s the finest of the flavors). So even with the verse’s structure, it still feels novel.
To make things even more novel, the verse interrupts those structured sections with less structured sections:
Hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes
Big like Leann Rimes
Because I’m all about value
…see the show,
Cause then you’ll know
The Vertigo is gonna grow
Cause it’s so dangerous,
You’ll have to sign a waiver
These verses are really hard for our brains to process. Steven Carmichael (of the RunBuzz podcast) told me he was once in a cover band that decided to perform “One Week”, and the lead singer got angry when he realized he had to learn the verse. That singer even bit his tongue on the verse in one performance, that’s how novel this piece of “word Tetris” is (as someone called it). And the verse creates that novelty by using just 3 tunes in a unique order.
Once our brains understand that we’re getting a lot of novelty, we move into the pre-chorus. And just like the chorus, the pre-chorus makes itself familiar by switching back and forth between two melodies. You can hear one of those tunes in these lines:
“How can I help it if I think you’re funny when you’re mad”
“I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral”
“I have a tendency to wear my mind on my sleeve”
And you can hear the other tune in the lines
“Trying hard not to smile though I feel bad”
“Can’t understand what I mean? Well, you soon will”
“I have a history of taking off my shirt”
After the song bounces back and forth between each of those tunes, we feel pretty familiar with these melodies.
Then the song brings us back to the chorus. Now, we’ve already heard each of the chorus’s lines 4 times, and our brain is already used to the chorus’s structure of switching back and forth between lines, so even though this chorus changes a few words, its tune feels a lot more familiar than the pre-chorus, and even more familiar than the verse.
The second verse is even more novel than the first. It introduces a new tune, and it doesn’t seem to even recognize the idea of switching back and forth between lines. It uses its melodies as many times as it wants, whenever it wants. No regard for structure or familiarity. It’s just here to do whatever it wants. By the time this verse is over, our brains feel like we’ve swum into novel territory.
Then the pre-chorus and chorus come back in, and we can feel the shift from novelty to familiarity. We’ve already heard these tunes before, these tunes have made themselves familiar, and they’re making themselves more familiar by following the pattern of switching back and forth between two tunes.
If you want more specifics, check out SongAppealOfficial.com/OneWeek, where I’ve included a document showing the exact melodic structure of this song. To sum it up: The entire structure of this song is about bouncing back and forth between familiarity and novelty. And the familiarity just keeps becoming more familiar and the novelty becomes more novel.
When we shift from this song’s verses to its pre-choruses and choruses, we shift from novelty to familiarity. Generally, our brain processes information we’ve heard before more easily than new information. After all, we’ve already digested this once. It’s a whole lot easier to absorb it a second time. When we shift from something hard to process to something easy to process, something called the “fluency heuristic” starts to kick in.
A heuristic is a simple rule of thumb your mind uses when you make decisions, and you might not even be aware of. If I’m not thinking about it, I make a lot of my eating decisions based on whatever happens to be in front of me. When I was in high school, my mom always had a plate of veggies out on the counter. Guess how often I ate veggies without really thinking about whether I wanted them? Just like the guy in this song had a tendency to wear his mind on his sleeve, I had a tendency that helped me to make decisions easily without thinking about them. That’s a heuristic.
And a lot of people have a heuristic around fluency. “Fluency” means that something is easy for our brains to handle. For example, when it’s easy for your brain to handle a language, we say that you’ve achieved fluency in that language. But in psychology, it’s not just about languages. After hearing the name “Brandon Sanderson” from my friends enough times, my mind got good at processing that name. That exact information is fluent for me.
The “fluency heuristic” is a simple rule-of-thumb we use that we usually don’t think about: If we can process one idea more easily than another, we unconsciously place higher priority on the idea that’s easier to process, and that priority sometimes shows itself by our minds enjoying the information more. When we encounter information that’s hard to process (or “disfluent”), it can mentally feel like we’re riding a bicycle uphill. Then, when we switch to information that’s more fluent for us, we feel like we’re riding a bicycle downhill. Our brains think “This is so much easier. I like this.”
Derek Thompson illustrates this in his book The Hit Makers when he wrote: “Imagine entering a room full of strangers. You look around for somebody you know but you cannot find a single recognizable face. And then suddenly there is a parting in the room, and through the crowd you see her – your best friend. The warm feeling of relief and recognition bursts through the clouds of confusion. That is the ecstasy of sudden fluency.”
That shift from novelty to familiarity, from disfluency to fluency, from hard to process to easy to process is exactly how we feel when we listen to “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies, as the song moves from its novel verses to its familiar pre-choruses and choruses.
Now, was any of this intentional? Here’s what Ed Robertson had to say about it. He’s the lead singer of Barenaked Ladies and the brain behind this song. In an interview with Newsweek, he said, “I improvised it, because I couldn’t finish it. I had the structure of the choruses and [I had] the idea of this relationship break-up. I kept trying to write these rap verses, and they were always [terrible].” He said that Steven Page, the backing vocalist suggested, “Why don’t you just freestyle them? The stuff you freestyle every night onstage is better than the stuff you’re trying to write.” So, in Ed Robertson’s words, “I improvised four verses, literally in a minute and a half. Then I edited the four verses into two.” And those two verses were left in the song without a word changed.
But whether Ed Robertson was trying to or not, he did a great job at creating a song that shifts from novel tunes to familiar melodies. That way, this song can ride the fluency heuristic so that we can enjoy it more.
Last week, I finished listening to every song Barenaked Ladies has ever put out, from demo tapes, to bonus tracks, to songs from movies and TV shows. And I found that to BNL, this kind of shift from disfluency to fluency isn’t exactly, well, novel. Notice how the verse of their song “Brian Wilson” seems free-flowing, like it doesn’t really care if it’s familiar:
Drove downtown in the rain
Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night
Just to check out the late-night record shop
Call it impulsive
Call it compulsive
Call it insane
But when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop
It’s a matter of instinct
It’s a matter of conditioning and a matter of fact
You can call me Pavlov’s Dog
Ring a bell and I’ll salivate
How’d you like that?
Dr. Landy tell me you’re not just a pedagogue
And the chorus makes itself familiar by repeating the same tunes:
‘Cause right now I’m lying in bed
Just like Brian Wilson did
Well I am lying in bed
Just like Brian Wilson did
By shifting from novelty to familiarity, they created a micro-classic. When they play this song live, everyone in the audience sings along. Brian Wilson himself sometimes uses this song to introduce his live show.
Or notice how the verse of their theme from The Big Bang Theory throws a lot of novelty at us:
Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait
The earth began to cool, the autotrophs began to drool
Neanderthals developed tools
We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
But the chorus makes itself familiar by either repeating melodies or playing similar melodies higher:
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries
That all started with the big bang! Hey!
By shifting from novelty to familiarity, from variety to unity, from disfluency to fluency, they created one of the catchiest TV themes in years.
Barenaked Ladies has found one of the many solution to this season’s main puzzle: the tightrope songwriters walk between familiarity and novelty. And “One Week” in particular is a great example of the power that song structure can have when it’s used to strike a balance between familiarity and novelty.
Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes from Season 1 and Season 2.
Thanks so much to my patrons for making this show possible. If you want to help support this show, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks.
Again, thanks so much for listening. With Season 2 over, we’re going to take a short break, but don’t worry, we’ll be back in a few months with brand-new episodes on the podcast and on a YouTube series, which you can find by searching for Song Appeal. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
This episode was made possible by the generous support of the following Patrons: