What makes us remember a tune?
Have you ever heard a song that got stuck in your head?
Have you ever had that moment where a song pops into your head that you haven’t heard for 5 years and you wonder “How did I even remember that?”
Have you ever heard a song for the first time and the tune stuck with you well enough to sing along with it the next time you heard it?
I know I’ve experienced that, and so have a lot of other people. Case in point: Every time I have a piano student, I use the Star Wars Main Theme to teach some principle. And no matter how old or young the student is, they can remember the theme and associate it with the movie well enough to instantly call out “That’s Star Wars!”
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 we like the Star Wars Main Theme by John Williams.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, upcoming interviews where I discuss this topic on other podcasts, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/StarWars. You can support Song Appeal on Patreon, where you can get exclusive minisodes and sneak peeks to episodes at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
This episode will be spoiler-free.
In 2016, the YouTube series Every Frame a Painting single-handedly changed the conversation around film music with their video “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” which asked “Why can’t we remember the main themes from some movies?”. After more than 5 separate video responses and over 15,000 comments, it was clear that most of this discussion focused on how the themes are used in the movie. Many commentators and essayists suggested that when a theme is used in an emotionally powerful moment with little dialogue and it’s repeated, the theme will be memorable. And when a theme is never used in an emotionally powerful moment with little dialogue and it isn’t repeated, the theme won’t be memorable.
But it’s more than just where the theme is used in the movie. It’s about what the theme is.
Flashback with me to movie night 6 months ago, when my friends and I watched Pacific Rim. Without spoiling anything from the movie, there’s an emotionally powerful moment with little dialogue where they play this theme, a theme that gets repeated throughout the movie. And I threw my fists in the air and shouted “Yes! Recognizable themes!” But it didn’t turn out to be as recognizable or as memorable as I thought: You could have played that tune for me 5 minutes later, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what movie it’s from. And you could have pointed a gun to my head and I wouldn’t have been able to hum the Pacific Rim theme for you.
It did everything people said the movie should do to make a theme memorable, but while Pacific Rim might have tried to make its theme memorable, there is no try. Pacific Rim did not. And Star Wars did. In fact, the Star Wars Main Theme is probably the most memorable piece of soundtrack music of all time, not just because of where it’s used in the film, but because the tune itself is memorable.
Yes, it’s played in an emotionally powerful moment. Yes, it’s played in a scene with no dialogue. Yes, it’s played over and over. But there’s more to it. The Star Wars Main Theme is memorable because it draws on ideas from music that we would recognize.
So why do familiar ideas make music memorable?
Our brains make memories by literally fusing together tiny parts of our brain called “dendrites” using calcium, then strengthening that connection with another coat of calcium every time we experience that memory again. So the more we experience something we’ve done before, the stronger the connection is and the easier it is to remember that experience.
If your brain is saying “Hey, this sounds like the last episode on “Something Just Like This” by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay”, that’s because our brains strengthen connections between dendrites when we hear something that’s even similar to the something we’ve heard before.
When you hear something that even sounds like something you’ve heard before, your brain can latch this memory onto the last memory by saying “This is kind of like that one time when we heard that other thing.” So when ideas are familiar, the idea is easier to remember.
So what makes the Star Wars Main Theme familiar enough to be memorable? That depends on who you are.
Did you watch classic movies before watching Star Wars? Because the Star Wars Main Theme was designed to sound like a classic movie soundtrack so that the movie could feel more classic.
Did you know anyone in the military before you watched Star Wars? Because I don’t know about you, but to me, the Star Wars Main Theme sounds a lot like military music.
Did you watch Star Wars as a kid? Because the melody shares an uncanny resemblance to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Both songs start on note 1, jump up to note 5, then go down to notes 4, 3, and 2 in that order (though each song strays a bit from this pattern).
Do you like classical music? Then you probably already know about the similarities between the Star Wars Main Theme and The Planets by Gustav Holst. That could be why the Star Wars Main Theme sounds familiar to you.
Did you watch Star Wars for the first time after 1977? Maybe you recognize this melody from its similarity to the “Superman March” since both themes emphasize notes 1, 5, and 8 on a scale and both focus on fifths.
It takes a stroke of brilliance to write a piece of music that everybody thinks sounds familiar, but when John Williams drew on so many musical influences and when he used similar ideas in his later music, this song became familiar to everybody, making it that much more memorable.
[Summarize the two points here]
In every episode of Song Appeal, I ask “Why do we like the music we like?” So you might be wondering “OK, so that’s why we remember this song, but why do we like the Star Wars Main Theme?”
One reason is because of what psychologists call the “mere exposure effect”, which basically means that just being exposed to something more can make us like it more. But our brains can’t tell the difference between experiencing something and remembering it, so when we remember a song, our brains “count” that as an exposure and we enjoy the song more just because of its sheer memorability.
At least part of the reason we like the Star Wars main theme is simply how memorable it is. And the Star Wars Main Theme isn’t just memorable because it is used in the right place in the movie. It is a genuinely memorable piece of music because it draws on familiar musical styles. That’s one reason the Star Wars Main Theme is one of the most memorable pieces of film music of all time.
Thanks again for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day, and may the Force be with you.
Thank you to the following Patreon sponsors for going above and beyond to support this episode: