“Why do we like the music we like?” That’s the question every episode of Song Appeal tries to answer. But there’s a paradox in those answers.
We like our songs to have something new. The episode about “Bohemian Rhapsody”, brought up a study where people saw a lot of ordinary pictures and an occasional “oddball” picture. Generally, those people’s pleasure centers lit up and they got a dopamine release when they saw the news picture. Similarly, when people listen to a song with a lot of novelty like “Bohemian Rhapsody”, their pleasure centers light up with dopamine.
But on the other side of the spectrum, we like familiar songs. The episode about “Stay” by Zedd & Alessia Cara, brought up a few studies about the mere exposure effect, which says that things that are more familiar are more comfortable and more enjoyable. And when songs can make themselves familiar, like repeating melodies, those songs can take advantage of the mere exposure effect to become more comfortable and more enjoyable.
Now, you might think “Which is more important? Should a song try to be familiar or novel?” But my mom used to say “This is an ‘and’ world”, so today, let’s ask a different question: “How can a song be familiar and novel at the same time?”
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 over the month of December, we’ll do a mini-series where we take a look at why we like 5 Christmas songs: 4 on the podcast and 1 on Patreon. So let’s kick off this mini-series by taking a look at one reason we like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”.
This episode will focus on the traditional version of this song from 1934. The ideas in this episode won’t apply to the Bruce Springsteen version.
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I’d like to let you in on how I decide which songs to talk about. I don’t usually start with a song. I usually start with a topic: why we remember certain words, why we like sad music, how 4-bar phrases affect us. Then I look for a song that does that idea, but not just any song. Because I never want to think “But I could have talked about this other song that does the same thing better!” And I never want think “But the song I’m talking about does something else that’s so much more interesting!” So I try to find the perfect marriage of topic and song.
That’s why the episode about anaphora and epistrophe focused on how those tools are used in “All The Pretty Girls” by Kenny Chesney: Because 60% of the song is affected by those two tools.
That’s why the episode that talked about a connection between minor thirds and sadness focused on how minor thirds are used in “Life & Death” from Lost: Because 70% of the main melody is made of minor 3rds.
And that’s why I waited until an episode about “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” to talk about my favorite piece of music theory: the sequence. I wanted to do an episode about sequences months ago, but I wanted to wait until I could talk about the song that used sequences best. And 89% of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is made up of sequences.
How does that help us like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”? Once you know what a sequence is, you’ll learn that sequences bring familiarity and novelty at the same time so that the song gets the benefits of both.
Now that I’ve said the word “sequence” 5 times, you’re probably wondering “What’s a sequence?”
The Oxford Companion to Music defines a sequence as: “The more or less exact repetition of a melody… higher or lower.” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” uses 3 different kinds of sequences: Diatonic, Modified, and Real.
This song starts with my favorite kind of sequence: a diatonic sequence. “Diatonic” is just a fancy word for “staying in the same key”. And the first four lines of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” are defined by a diatonic sequence – a sequence where everything stays in the key. Here’s the big picture:
5 3 4 5 5
5 6 7 8 8
5 3 4 5 5
5 6 5 4 4
OK, let’s dive into it. Each of the first four lines starts with note 5 then goes into a standard diatonic sequence. The first line introduces us to the original idea: 3 4 5 5. The next line does the same idea 3 notes higher: Note 3 becomes note 6. Note 4 becomes note 7. Note 5 becomes note 8. So 3 4 5 5 becomes 6 7 8 8. Then we get the original idea again: 3 4 5 5. Then it gives us something called an “inverted sequence”, which is the same idea, but played upside-down! Every time it would go up, it goes down. So instead of having 3 4 5 5, we have 6 5 4 4. With this many diatonic sequences, listening to this song can feel a little like watching a Marvel movie. You generally know what you’re getting, and there’s a twist on it each time. These diatonic sequences are reliable, safe, and (I hope) fun.
Of course, that’s not the only kind of sequence. The next 4 lines are defined by a modified sequence, which is exactly what it sounds like: a series of notes that are played higher or lower, but something’s changed.
You can hear an example in “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” when it plays 1 1 7 1 2 1 5 and moves up 2 notes. But if it just moved up 2 notes, we’d get 3 3 2 3 4 3 7, and that 7 doesn’t really fit. So instead of moving that last note up 2 tones, this song moves it up four tones so that we get the 3 3 2 3 4 3 2 line that we’re used to.
In “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”, the basic idea is starting on a note and going 2 notes up, whether that’s going from 3 to 5, 1 to 3, 2 to 4, or 7 to… 2? That doesn’t sound right. The sequence wants to end on note 2, but the phrase wants to resolve. So the sequence sacrifices its note 2 so that the song can end on note 1, which sounds so much more resolving. A modified sequence acts a little like a mother, sacrificing its own needs, dropping what it’s doing, even sacrificing a little of its identity to support something else’s needs. The song modifies the sequence to fit its needs.
Now, in the diatonic sequence and the modified sequence, the distance between notes keeps changing. But what happens if the distance between the notes stays exactly the same, to the point that the song is willing to go out of the key just to keep the sequence?
That’s where real sequences come in.
Real sequences are defined by how far apart the notes are, and real sequences are absolutely determined to never change the distance between the notes. So when we talk about real sequences, let’s forget about which notes are being sung and focus on how far apart those notes are in terms of half-steps
The original idea goes like this: Start on a note, go up 2 half-steps, down 2, down 1, up 1, down 3. We get the original idea again. Then we get the same idea a whole-step higher.
A real sequence isn’t interested in sacrificing its needs for the sake of the song. When a real sequence walks into a song, it says “I am the most important thing.” A real sequence is willing to do literally anything to stay a sequence. It will leave the key, it will avoid resolution, it might even change the key of the song just to stay a real sequence.
Real sequences are the divas of the music theory world. They demand that anything and everything should be ready to change to fit what they do. But what they do sounds great.
And modified sequences sound great, because they can be a sequence and help the song a lot at the same time.
And diatonic sequences sound great, because they can stay in the key without losing anything of what a sequence is.
Every time I’ve heard any kind of sequence in a song, it’s sounded great. And when I hear something that sounds good in so many situations, I have to wonder “Why does it sound good?”
It’s because sequences lie at the intersection of familiarity and novelty.
Half the point of a sequence is to give us the same phrase until it becomes familiar. That way, the mere exposure effect can kick in, so this song feels more comfortable, more safe, and more enjoyable. Why does that work? Because our brains get to stop working quite so hard to understand this song once it becomes familiar, which makes our brains say “Ah… this is so much easier. I like this.”
But a sequence isn’t just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s not just the melodic version of Groundhog Day. It’s doing the same thing differently so that it be novel.
That’s partly because each time a sequence goes higher or lower, it changes which notes it’s playing on a scale. Notes 3 4 5 5 become notes 6 7 8 8. You might not think that really matters either. After all, if it’s the same tune, who cares where it’s played on a scale? But different notes have different functions. Moving from note 3 to note 5 feels very different than moving from note 2 to note 4. And the first time we hear that real sequence, it focused on note 1, the most stable and resolved note of a scale. And when the tune strayed from note 1, it would just go next-door and then come right back home to note 1. But when the idea moves higher, it focuses on note 2, which definitely isn’t stable, definitely isn’t resolved, it feels like it wants to go somewhere. This song makes sure that we feel how the sequences change.
Lastly, this song gives us a new kind of novelty with each new sequence. To a diatonic sequence, staying in the key is important enough that it will stretch and squish the distances between some notes. The modified sequence… is modified. And even the real sequence has some novelty in it because it changes how many times it plays the last note. The first time, the last note is played twice [music], the second time, it’s played once [music], and the third time, it’s played three times [music]. So even when it’s a real sequence, it’s still presenting its own form of novelty.
And that amount of novelty gives us a dopamine release. The pleasure centers of our brains light up from the novelty just as much as the familiarity. And in this song, we get both at once.
Now, a little while ago, I showed a student how sequences play into a few songs he likes. And he looked crestfallen. He didn’t like find that those songs were just theory.
And he has a good point. Sequences are all about patterns. And when theory starts focusing on patterns, it’s easy to think theory makes a song formulaic, predictable, and boring. And when theory can feel formulaic when it’s used for its own sake, without reason and without feeling.
But when it’s done well, even the most math-based, pattern-based forms of theory can become an art form in itself. Cory Arnold, a music theorist and elephant cartoonist from the YouTube channel 12tone once said “I’m here to do math to sounds until art happens”.
Music theory isn’t box of tricks. It’s a box of tools. And “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is a song that knows how to use its tools really well.
Maybe one reason why people still like this song 80 years later is because of its sequences. That sequence creates a familiar pattern and repeats that familiar pattern in new ways. And as listeners, the fusion of familiarity and novelty is at the top of our subconscious Christmas lists.
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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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