Why is familiarity so important?
Let’s flash back to 1992, when the legendary music producer Denniz Pop “got a casette sent to [his] house saying ‘please listen to our demos and call us. -Ace of Base’”. Now, Denniz Pop liked to make sure that songs sounded great in the car, so “[he] put [the tape] in [his] car stereo and it got stuck. So [he] kept hearing it. Every time [he] drove in that car, [he] heard the same song” (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbVcgEucMdY).
Eventually, he heard some potential in the song. After all, it had some good hooks, just in the wrong spots. So when Ace of Base finally called him to follow up on the demo tape, he replied “I’ve been waiting for you guys to call. I really want to work with you guys.” (source: https://slate.com/culture/2015/10/denniz-pop-max-martin-and-cheiron-studios-the-man-who-invented-modern-pop.html)
That demo tape turned Denniz Pop and Ace of Base into worldwide pop sensations. It opened the door for Max Martin (the Spielberg of songwriting). It turned Sweden into a hit machine. And it virtually began what we think of as pop music. All because one song became familiar enough for Denniz Pop to see something to like about it.
If we move forward 15 years from there, we can learn a lot about why that familiarity is important by looking into the psychology behind one of Zedd’s biggest pop hits.
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 on today’s episode, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “Stay” by Zedd & Alessia Cara.
Have you ever heard that “familiarity breeds contempt”? Have you ever heard that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”?
We sometimes think of repetition as a bad thing. Of course, it can be a bad thing. We’ve all heard songs we like that get overplayed, and we’ve all heard songs with one line that’s repeated too often. But I’ve heard some songs that use repetition really well. Remember how “Don’t Stop Believin’” uses the same instrumental part through almost the whole song? Take a listen to “Jump” by Van Halen and notice the instrumental part just repeats during the whole song. And notice how even Beethoven’s 5th uses the same little idea in the melody over and over and over again.
How can repetition make us like a song more? Let’s take a look at “Stay” by Zedd and Alessia Cara. It really takes advantage of the mere exposure effect to make us like the song more, not because the song was played over and over, but because this song repeats its melody just enough the first time we hear it.
Have you ever heard a song for the first time and thought “Why does everybody like this song?”, but then it grew on you?
In psychology, that’s called the mere exposure effect. It’s the idea that people like something based merely on how often they’ve been exposed to it.
Storytime: In 1967, 20 students shuffled into the first day of their Speech 113 class at Oregon State University and found a large black bag with two bare feet sticking out of it on a small table near the back of the classroom. Now, if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t exactly be comfortable with that. This is a Speech class, not a class about Human Anatomy or Forensic Science. And understandably, those students weren’t exactly welcoming towards the black bag and whoever was inside of it.
Two days later, the students walked into the same classroom to find the same black bag and the same bare feet on the same table. Except for the professor (who I assume asked some poor student to wear a black bag and go to class barefoot three times a week for a semester), no one knew who was inside the black bag. But every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for months, the black bag sat at the back of the classroom on a small table. And over the course of the semester, the students started treating the black bag and its occupant differently. Quoting from Associated Press, “the students’ attitude changed from hostility toward the Black Bag to curiosity and finally to friendship.”
When the social psychologist Robert Zajonc heard about this experiment with the Speech class, he wondered “Is that a real thing? Do people like things more specifically because they get exposed to them more?”
So he set up a series of experiments, and over the next few years, he found that if you control for everything else, people like basically anything more after they become familiar with it. Whether he was testing shapes, drawings, photographs of expressions, or nonsense words, he found that we like it more when we see it more.
In what I think was the most interesting of these experiments, Zajonc showed people a series of Chinese characters that they didn’t understand, and he made sure to show some characters more often than others. Then he asked the participants to guess what the characters meant. People generally said that the symbols they’d seen more often meant something positive, and the ones they were less familiar with meant something negative.
Zajonc called this the “mere exposure effect”, the psychological version of saying “it grew on me”.
And it doesn’t take much exposure for this effect to kick in. In some of Zajonc’s experiments, participants didn’t get to see things long enough to recognize that they’d even seen them. And they still liked it more. (By the way, this is where the idea of subliminal advertising started.) So it really doesn’t take that much exposure.
At the end of Zajonc’s first academic article about this effect, he said “as yet, the account books cannot be closed” and he called on other scientists to conduct further research about it. And scientists did plenty of further research into this field, enough that 20 years later, Robert Bornstein compiled 208 experiments that other people had done about the mere exposure effect. And 208 experiments found that generally, people do like things they’re exposed to, if you control for all the other factors. There were some exceptions, though. For example, he mentioned that Walter Swap, a social psychologist at Tufts University, found that if you spend more time around someone, and you already hate their guts, this effect will backfire and you’ll start to hate them even more than you already did.
James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University, said this might be one reason we like the Mona Lisa. You see, at first, the painting wasn’t looked on with awe and respect. It was just one of many paintings at The Louvre. But when someone stole the painting in 1911, everyone heard about it. When the Louvre was finally able to show this painting again, people saw pictures of this painting in every newspaper. After seeing it so many times, people started to like it more.
So, why do our brains do that? Why do we like things that are more familiar?
One theory is that whatever we’re being exposed to stops being novel, so our brains don’t have to work as hard to think about whatever it is, so our brains think “Ah, this is easier. I like this.”
A more survival-based reason was succinctly summed up in Derek Thompson’s book, The Hit Makers, when he wrote “If you’ve seen it before, it hasn’t killed you yet.”
The mere exposure effect can influence how we feel about anything from black bags, to the Mona Lisa, to certain songs.
How does it affect songs? Most of the time, when people talk about how this effect plays into music, they don’t talk about the song itself; they talk about how the song was played over and over. That is definitely a factor, but in this episode, let’s go in a different direction, for two reasons.
First, when Robert Bornstein studied those 208 experiments about the mere exposure effect, he found that generally, the effect is strongest around 10 to 20 exposures. After that, it starts to backfire and people tend to get sick of whatever they’re being exposed to. That’s why we feel like some songs are overplayed, even if we liked them the first few times. So just blasting a song on every radio station, playlist, and grocery store speaker won’t make people love a song. In fact, it will probably do exactly the opposite.
The second reason is because saying “You like this song because you just heard this song over and over” ignores the song itself. It ignores the songwriters’ choices and focuses exclusively on the choices made by radios and executives. It treats songs as interchangeable and borders on saying “It doesn’t matter what the song is. Just as long as it’s played enough times.”
In this episode, let’s talk about the mere exposure effect in terms of what the song itself did, and what choices the songwriters and producers made, not just what the DJs did to make us like it.
In this episode, let’s take a look at how the songwriting process can trigger this effect, not just how radio play can trigger it.
In this episode, let’s take a look at what the song itself did to make us like “Stay” the first time we heard it.
What “Stay” did was pretty simple: Every single line of melody in this song repeats at some point before the first chorus is over.
Most songs spend their first minute or so introducing melodies. “Stay” spends its time retreading melodies, but it puts some structure into its repetitions.
The song starts off with a simple humming melody and cycles through that tune for most of the verse.
Once the verse kicks in, it gives us another melody (“Waiting for the time to pass you by”) and that melody plays again (“Hope the winds of change will change your mind”).
At the end of the verse, we get two lines… that don’t repeat. But at least it recycles the rhythm. “I could give a thousand reasons why./And I know you, and you’ve got to.”
Then the pre-chorus starts, and the song makes sure to play this tune twice, but it does change one note.
Make it on your own, but we don’t have to grow up
We can stay forever young
Living on my sofa, drinking rum and cola
Underneath the rising sun
And remember those two lines from the end of the verse that didn’t repeat? The song was just waiting to bring them back right at the end of the pre-chorus: “I could give a thousand reasons why./But you’re going, and you know that…”
And then the chorus comes in. It plays a few lines of melody once – “All you have to do is stay a minute,/Just take your time/The clock is ticking, so stay” – and then plays the same tune with different words: “All you have to do is wait a second/Your hands on mine/The clock is ticking, so stay”. And we get a bonus repetition when we hear three lines with the same tune, wrapped up inside the larger repetition that is the chorus: “Stay a minute/Just take your time,/The clock is ticking…”.
When I decided to do an episode about the mere exposure effect, I wanted to highlight it with a song that repeats itself in an interesting way, instead of one that just repeats itself until you get sick. A lot of songs turn repetition into either an art form or a stink bomb, but “Stay” turns repetition into a science. By the end of the first chorus, we’ve been exposed to every single line of melody at least twice. That makes the mere exposure effect kick in before this song is half over.
Now honestly, I didn’t want to do an episode about the mere exposure effect. I didn’t want people to think that the only reason we like a certain song is because we’ve heard it before, because I didn’t want to make it sound like the song itself is garbage.
We sometimes give the mere exposure effect a bad rap. We figure if we like the Mona Lisa because of the mere exposure effect, we must like it merely because of the amount of exposure it got, and not because of its quality. But if you look at Robert Zajonc’s original article, that’s not the way he used the phrase “mere exposure”.
You see, Zajonc had read plenty of studies that showed that we like music that we’re more familiar with, but music was too complex for what he was trying to do. There are so many different reasons why we like certain songs, he just wanted to scientifically isolate things and prove that exposure could actually be one of the many factors in why we like what we like.
So the mere exposure effect doesn’t mean that the Mona Lisa is garbage. I mean, even before it was stolen, The Mona Lisa was already in The Louvre! And just because we have one reason to like “Stay” doesn’t mean we can’t like it for other reasons, too.
That’s why I’d really prefer the name “familiarity principle”, because that name doesn’t imply that we like a song “only”, “simply”, “merely” because of exposure.
The mere exposure effect isn’t the only reason to like “Stay” by Zedd and Alessia Cara, but it is an overlooked reason and a fascinating psychological principle. Maybe the songwriters and producers weren’t consciously trying to use it, but this song still did a great job of taking advantage of this effect so that we don’t need to hear the song a dozen times to like it. With all its repetition, this song makes sure we can enjoy it after hearing it only once.
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