“Style” by Taylor Swift

[CA:] “What happens when we don’t get what we want?”

That’s Claire Arthur. You might remember her from last week’s episode about “Unwell” by Matchbox Twenty and how predictability can produce pleasure. She works in the field of computational musicology. [CA:] “I gather in lots and lots of data about music”, then she analyzes that data to learn about melody, harmony, rhythm, and [CA:] “how those things set up musical expectations or create emotional reactions in a listener.” [CA:] “so what that might involve is where notes tend to go next, where are they most likely to go next?”

Every time you listen to a song, you’re subconsciously subconsciously picking up on patterns, patterns that you might not even recognize.

[CA:] “We only see this play out when something is surprising or catches us off-guard, so something suddenly is out of place and seems funny,… that gives you a little surprise….”

But that surprise creates a problem. Your brain wants to predict the future. And more importantly, your brain wants to predict the future correctly. That way, you can avoid things that are dangerous and make decisions that help you. Our expectations can be a matter of life and death.

And yet, people celebrate music that subverts our expectations.

So why do we like being surprised?

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 “Style” by Taylor Swift.

You can find this episode’s transcript, its references, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/Style.

Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to help support this show, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal.

Brilliant Bass Lines has invited me to be a guest to talk about the basics of music theory on a free Webinar live, this Saturday, May 11, at noon Mountain Time. You can register at Bit.ly/BrilliantBassLinesWebinar.

[music]

The first time I learned about computational musicology was from a video Holistic Songwriting put out, where songwriting coach Friedemann Findeisen mined boatloads of data from Taylor Swift’s album 1989 to show that that she a lot of one-note melodies: over 230 of them on this record alone.

Most of her one-note melodies focus on the first note of a scale, like the first two lines of “Welcome to New York” (“Walkin’ through a crowd, the village is aglow/Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats”), the first few lines of “Blank Space” (“Nice to meet you, where you been?”), and most of the chorus of “Out of the Woods”:

Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet?

Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods?

Are we in the clear yet? Are we in the clear yet?

Are we in the clear yet? In the clear yet, good

But “Style” takes a different route: Instead of the first note of a scale, she’s focusing on the second note of a scale. I’m going to clap every time the chorus plays that note. Are you ready for it? Let’s go. [bolded syllables represent the second note of a scale.]

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye

And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like

And when we go crashing down, we come back every time

‘Cause we never go out of style, we never go out of style

You’ve got that long hair slick back, white t-shirt

And I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt

And when we go crashing down, we come back every time

‘Cause we never go out of style, we never go out of style

That’s 101 notes, and 58 of them are the second note of a scale. Why does that matter? Because when we hear that note, we expect it to resolve down to the first note of a scale. But since we never get that resolution, we get a state of constant tension. But that tension feels better than we’d expected in our wildest dreams, because it’s a safe surprise.

If you listened to last week’s episode about “Unwell”, you might remember that each of the seven notes on a scale (or each “scale degree”, call it what you want) has its own distinct feeling, and each note on a scale (or “scale degree”) makes us expect something different to come next, and that’s one of the main secrets behind “Style”’s melody.

There’s a story told about the early 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn that shows how certain notes make us expect certain things. [CA:] “Mendelssohn was in the bath and a visitor came to his house and did this thing where he played an ascending major scale and then stopped on scale degree 7, so he did something like [scale 3 times], and then he just kept leaving it there… Mendelssohn… originally said he wasn’t going to come down, but he was so irritated that he had to come out of the bath and complete it.” After all, scale degree 7 is literally as close to scale degree 1 as you can get.

You don’t have to be a Mendelssohn or a Mozart to recognize how strong the pull is from scale degree 7 (or the seventh note of a scale) to scale degree 1 (or the first note of a scale). But what about scale degree 2, where “Style” spends more than half of its chorus? Claire Arthur told me: [CA:] “We tend to hear scale degree 2 and want it to resolve down to 1.”

You can really feel pull from scale degree 2 to scale degree 1 if I play [“O’er the land of the free, and the home of the -”] and left the song with some blank space. On the second note of the scale. You can feel the need for resolution. You can feel how the second note of a scale wants to move down to the first note of the scale [scale degree 1]. Ah, that’s better.

So when “Style” gives us scale degree 2 or the second note of a scale over and over, we subconsciously know exactly where it leads: scale degree 1.

But “Style” doesn’t give us scale degree 1. [CA:] “We have some expectation for it to go there, and it doesn’t resolve, it’s sort of a slow building of tension because you want it to go somewhere, and you want it to go somewhere, and you want it to go somewhere, and you want it to go somewhere, and then it doesn’t.” Instead, it says “I know all too well what you think is coming next. But trust me. You’ll enjoy this.” [CA:] “It’s a way of keeping… a small amount of tension, flowing right through that song.”

That musical cliffhanger gives us one more reason to keep listening to this song. We want to hear what comes next. So when the chorus decides to begin again, we’re happy to hear it go round and round each time.

[CA:] “I think that what it might be doing is just largely creating a continued forward momentum. A lot of pop songs, they want to move, they want to make us move.” And a lot of that motion comes because there’s a lot of tension.

But this isn’t that nail-biting tension of worrying that you might lose your job, fail that class, or lose that friend. No, this is the tension of watching your favorite team and just hoping they win, the tension of watching Tom Cruise pull off an impossible mission with one second left, the tension you feel at game night when you’re neck and neck with one of your friends. “Style”’s tension is the kind of tension that makes things fun.

Why does that tension make things fun instead of stressful? One reason: We’re hearing something unexpected. We’re getting a small musical surprise.

But when I realized this was a musical surprise, I started to wonder: Why is surprise enjoyable in the first place? Your brain wants to predict the future correctly. So why would your brain be happy to be wrong?

Imagine you walk into your home one night, and as soon as you open the door, you hear a loud noise and a lot of sudden movement in your direction. At least one part of your brain is anywhere from breathless to terrified. [CA:] “then you have an extra moment on top of that where you realize that you’re actually surrounded by familiar faces and people you know, and by the way, it’s your birthday, so of course it’s a surprise party.” And the part of your brain that says “you’re safe and sound” doesn’t just make you fearless, it makes you feel so much better.

[CA:] “if your boss calls you into his office and everyone’s getting laid off, and you’re like “oh, no. I’m getting laid off, too”, then he calls you in the office and he says “You’ve been doing a great job. I’m going to give you a raise”. How do you feel in that moment? You thought you were going to get fired, and then you’re actually getting a raise. It probably makes the raise even better.”

And that’s how we act when we come across anything safe that’s unexpected, even an unexpected musical note: We feel stressed and worried for just a split second, but then you realize nothing’s actually threatening you. You’re out of the woods. You’re safe. And when you were feeling bad, feeling good feels even better. That’s how “Style” can make surprise satisfying.

“Style” is a song that knows its audience and knows its end game. It knows that when you hear the second note of a scale, you’re going to expect it to resolve to the first note. It knows that if you don’t get that, you’re going to have this state of constant tension. And it knows that tension will feel good because it’s a safe surprise.

This may have been intentional. After all, “Style” was co-written by Max Martin: the Spielberg of songwriting. He understands what listeners expect and how to play with those expectations to give you a good time. He understands how to craft and carve his melodies so his listeners can love these songs. He understands how to use music theory to give his listeners that classic thing that we like. And I almost do think he chose to focus on the second note of a scale and never reach resolution because he knew we would like it.

We sometimes think of music theory as something restrictive, something that gets in the way of the songwriting process. But “Style” shows us what a little music theory mixed with a little music psychology can do for a song. Critics called this song “immaculate” and a song that “satisfies on every level”. And understanding music theory can help us understand why this song – for both of us, for you and for me – will never go out of style.

[Music]

Thanks so much for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.

Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this show possible. If you want to help support this show, visit Patreon.com/SongAppeal.

Thanks to Claire Arthur for her help with this episode. If you want to hear more from her, visit ClaireArthur.com.

This episode talked a lot about how certain notes on the major scale work. If you want to learn more about major scales and why we use them in the first place, check out Coursera’s program: “Music As Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why” at Bit.ly/MusicAsBiology.

Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.

Thanks to the following Patrons for their generous support:

Brenda Farris

Jake Lizzio