What gets us to pay attention?
Have you ever listened to a really engaging speech?
Have you ever gotten lost in a conversation?
Have you ever heard a song that caught your attention enough to distract you from what you were doing?
I just had that experience inside a Barnes and Noble. As I was browsing, reading the titles of books, “Rewrite the Stars” from The Greatest Showman came on and it distracted me from the names of the books because my brain just had to pay attention to that song.
What causes that?
I’m Hunter Farris. And for years, I’ve wondered “Why do we like the music we like?” So on today’s episode of Song Appeal, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “Rewrite the Stars” from The Greatest Showman.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/RewriteTheStars. You can also support Song Appeal on Patreon.com at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
In the last episode of Song Appeal, Tracy Goodwin, who specializes in the Psychology of the Voice, taught us that “the brain checks out after 90 seconds no matter what” and that one reason why we check out is “because a voice is predictable. You’ve told me what you’re going to do because you’re using the same tone repeatedly, so it’s predictable. And when something is predictable, our brain says, ‘eh, you know where they’re going. You know what they’re doing. Why don’t you think about your grocery list, or what’s going down on Facebook, or all the things you have to do today?’”
When speakers start to talk like Ben Stein did in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, (“Bueller? Bueller?) listeners start to check out like his students did.
And when a song becomes monotonous as Ben Stein, the listener starts to check out the same way.
So how does a song grab our attention and keep our attention? Well, we pay attention to “Rewrite the Stars” because the notes in the melody change more than a normal song, the speed change than a normal song, and the instrumental track changes more than a normal song.
Since our brains check out every few seconds, when a song “holds our attention”, essentially what happens is that the sounds keeps grabbing our attention over and over, for instance, through a voice that keeps changing pitch. So “Rewrite the Stars” impersonates an interesting voice through a melody with a constantly changing pitch.
During the entire first verse, first chorus, and first pre-chorus, this song never uses the same note more than 4 times in a row. Let’s contrast that with “Love So Soft” by Kelly Clarkson uses the same note 21 times in a row [music]. And “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies uses the same note 25 times in a row [music]. When “Rewrite the Stars” has that much more variety than other pop songs, the notes alone can grab our attention over and over and over.
And then “Rewrite the Stars” becomes more attention-grabbing by changing the distance between notes (or the “intervals”). Take this line for example: [music: “What if we rewrite the stars”]. The tune starts on a Bb, then after moving 2 half-steps up and 2 half-step down, it jumps up by 12 half steps (the biggest jump in the song), down by 1 half-step, down by 4 half-steps, and down by 2 half steps. That’s a lot of change in the distance between the notes, or the intervals.
And while this might sound kind of meta, the song changes how much change there is by changing what kinds of intervals it uses between different sections of the song. During the first few lines, the notes either stay the same or go up by 2 half-steps. Soon, the song adds in another interval when it bounces back and forth between 2 notes that are 7 half-steps apart. Then the pre-chorus adds in a random interval with 3 half-steps, another with 4, another with 5, until we jump into the chorus, where the intervals keep changing every few notes. If you want this more specifically, check the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/RewriteTheStars, where I’ve included a link to a chart of when each interval appears in the first verse, first pre-chorus, and first chorus. You’ll notice in that chart that different sections of the song have intervals with completely different sizes, meaning that the jumps between notes keep changing how big and small they are depending on the part of the song you’re listening to.
Have you ever noticed that when something moves in the corner of your eye, you can’t help but look? Just like our eyes have evolved to notice movement, our ears can’t help but notice when something is different, just like you might have noticed there when I suddenly jumped from the size of different intervals to the evolution of our eyes. So when “Rewrite the Stars” makes the melody move, the song constantly grabs at our attention and holds it.
Since change grabs our attention, “Rewrite the Stars” goes a step further by changing the speed of the song.
I’m not talking the number of beats per minute. I’m talking about the number of notes per second. The beats per minute (the tempo) stays the same. You would still dance to it at the same speed. But there are simply more notes in every second. Each second is just more dense with notes.
When the number of notes per second changes, the song holds our attention better, just like a voice holds our attention better when it speeds up and slows down. As Charlie Houpert from Charisma on Command put it: “People talk about speaking in monotone, and that’s when you talk like this the whole time. It’s the same tone. It puts people to sleep. What they don’t realize is that you don’t want to talk mono-anything. You don’t want to talk mono-speed and always talk at the same pace. You don’t want to be mono-rhythm and pause only at commas and periods.
“…So alter the speed. Alter the tone. Alter the volume. Alter the breathiness.
Each of those, when compounded and added together is going to give you 10 times more expressiveness in your voice and help you to command the attention of rooms full of people, no matter what you’re talking about.”
On average, there are about 2 notes per second in the verse. The pre-chorus speeds up to about 2 and a half notes per second (on average), and the chorus’s melody slows back down to an average of slightly over 2 notes per second. And it starts all over again with the second verse when the melody slows back down to 2 notes a second. So on a macro scale, the melody changes how fast or slow it is depending on the section. It’s a subtle change, but a powerful one.
But on a smaller scale, the melody’s speed changes every few seconds during the entire song.
Any given second in the verse might have anywhere from 0 notes to 4 notes. And the change is huge. The jump is almost always at least 2 notes per second. That’s more change than most people put into their voices.
The pre-chorus has more range in its speed at 0 to 5 notes per second, but the speed changes much less dramatically. Most of the time, the speed only changes between seconds by one note per second, if it changes at all in the pre-chorus.
And any second in the chorus has anywhere from 0 notes per second to 3 notes per second, usually changing by 1 or 2 notes per second.
Almost every second of the melody has a different speed, and once again, the change is different depending on what section of the song we’re in.
Again, if you want more specifics, check the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/RewriteTheStars, where I’ve included a link to a chart of how many notes appear in each second in the first verse, first pre-chorus, and first chorus. With that much change in the speed, you can bet that the song catches our attention over and over to really hold our attention.
But if just the melody were changing, our minds would only pay attention to the melody. If the background track were the same during the entire time, we wouldn’t even notice the instrumental track after a few minutes, for the same reason we don’t notice other background noises that stay the same, like a dishwasher that’s been running for a while or the hiss that’s been in the background of this episode for the last 5 minutes. Yeah, now you notice it.
Neuroscientist Joe Dispenza once pointed out that our brains receive 400 billion bits of information every second [if you want the exact quote, it’s on page 11 of his book]. That’s as much processing power as it takes to leave your Netflix account streating for 15 straight days. While our brains are getting blasted every second with more information than it takes to watch the entirety of Supernatural, we’re only aware of about 2,000 of those bits of information at any given moment, less information than it takes to stream a single frame of television. And those 2,000 bits have to be split up across 5 senses. So our brains have intentionally not pay attention to virtually everything that comes through our ears, usually the bits of information that are the same as before, because, as Tracy Goodwin told us earlier on in this episode: “When something is predictable, our brain says, ‘eh, you know where they’re going. You know what they’re doing.’”
So when a background part is predictable, it becomes background noise.
If the entire song is going to keep our attention and not just the melody, “Rewrite the Stars” has to have an interesting background track.
If you listen closely to the background track, you’ll notice new instruments coming in, instruments fading out, there isn’t anything in the background track at all for the first 6 seconds. And just like the melody, the instrumentals change how many notes they play per second and what intervals there are between those notes. I won’t include all the data here, because there’s so much going on in the instrumental track that it would be almost impossible to process here. Instead, I’ll let you feel how much the instrumental track changes. Here’s a bit from the first verse: [music]. From the first chorus: [music]. From the bridge: [music]. I could go on, but you get the idea that the instrumental track changes a lot.
Since the instrumental track changes even more than the melody, the entire song catches our attention, not just the melody. And when our brains have to focus on an instrumental track this complex and multiple singers, we don’t have attention to spare on anything else.
In every episode of Song Appeal, I ask the question “Why do we like the music we like?” And while getting someone like me to focus on anything is impressive, that still leaves the question “Why do we like “Rewrite the Stars”? What is it about this song that makes us enjoy it so much?”
The way our brains focus is by producing a chemical called dopamine, which is also a pleasure chemical. In a sense, our brains feel really good when we focus on things. That’s why being on a roll in a project or getting really in the zone in a game feels so good.
Whether it’s intentional or not, “Rewrite the Stars” does a great job catching and holding our attention whether we’re in a theater or in a Barnes and Noble by changing the notes in the melody, changing how many notes per second appear in the melody, and how much information we get in the instrumental part. All for the purpose of giving us a dopamine release to increase the song’s appeal.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.