Once we listen to a song, what makes us want to go back and listen to it again… and again… and, well, again.
Have you ever listened to a song and thought “I just have to hear that song again… 63 times in the next 2 days?”
I may or may not have had that experience with “Just the Girl” by The Click Five. I loved that song, so much that I may have listened to it a little too much? But listening to it again years later, I still love it just as much.
And every time I hear “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne, the moment the song is over, I just want to hear it again. And again. And again.
What causes that?
We’re humans. We’re emotional creatures. When we love a song, it’s not because of how it sounds. It’s because of how it makes us feel.
But what we usually don’t think about is how those feelings change during the song. After all, a song could make us feel happy or sad, but we usually don’t think about how a song changes to make us happier or sadder during the course of the song. And that kind of “emotional structure” is one reason we keep coming back for more.
I’m Hunter Farris. And for years, I’ve wondered “Why do we like the music we like?” So in today’s episode of Song Appeal, we’ll be taking a look at one reason why we like “Just the Girl” by The Click Five and “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne.
You can find the full transcript for this episode and the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/TheClickFive-FountainsOfWayne (that’s the word “five” not the number “5”). That’s SongAppealOfficial.com/TheClickFive-FountainsOfWayne
[music: “Stacy’s mom has got it goin’ on”]
“Just the Girl” and “Stacy’s Mom” defined the careers of The Click Five and Fountains of Wayne. “Just the Girl” was the Click Five’s one-hit wonder. It was a #1 hit on Billboard’s Digital Songs chart… and it was from their first album. Am I the only one who’s really impressed that they managed to have a #1 hit on their first album? None of their other songs even came close to being as popular as “Just the Girl”. “Stacy’s Mom” on the other hand put a established band on the map. Once “Stacy’s Mom” came out, Fountains of Wayne received the Grammy for Best New Artist… after having been together for 10 years. Why did it take that long? Well, almost nobody had heard of the band until “Stacy’s Mom” made Fountains of Wayne a minor household name. These songs must have done something right if they basically defined the entire careers of 2 bands.
Now, originally, I wrote this episode about just one of these songs, but after hearing the other song, I realized they’re similar enough that we’d get a better idea of how emotions change during a song by looking at both at once. Which makes sense. Both songs were written by the same guy, Adam Schlesinger, the bassist for Fountains of Wayne. And even though Adam Schlesinger is a really good musical chameleon, blending into whatever musical style he’s working with, there are enough similarities between “Stacy’s Mom” and “Just the Girl” that even The Click Five’s lead singer said that “Just The Girl” was, and I quote, “basically an unreleased Fountains of Wayne song”.
And while the instruments, the lead singers’ voices, and the lyrics’ meanings are kind of similar, the biggest similarity is that both songs have the same emotional effect on their audiences. These songs don’t just have a musical structure made up of verses and choruses. They have an emotional structure made up of highs and lows, because the songs change their pitch, the number of instruments, and the amount of dissonance so that we get the same feelings that we get from watching a high-energy action movie.
How do they do it?
Pitch is sometimes measured in “hertz”, which is just a fancy word for the number of times something happens every second. In music, hertz refers to the number of times sound waves move through the air per second. When the pitch gets higher, the amount of hertz increases and the number of times the sound waves move in the air every second increases. So when the melody gets higher, there is literally more energy in the air. When pitch gets lower, the amount of hertz decreases and the number of times the sound waves move in the air every second decreases. So when the melody is lower, there is literally less energy moving through the air. Am I the only one who thinks this is really cool that you can change how much energy is in the air by changing what note you’re playing?! Ah, this is so cool!
But it’s not just cool. It’s actually really useful for both these songs. Because the chorus of a song is usually the most important part, so Adam Schlesinger makes the entire chorus of both these songs higher than the verses so that there’s more physical energy moving through the air whenever the most important parts happen. So the choruses are literally more energetic than the verses.
So the pitch alone can affect how much energy we feel during the most important parts of a song.
As important as pitch is, there’s more to notice. When there are more instruments, there’s more going on, so there’s more for our brains to process. So when there’s more for our brains to process, our brains have to pay more attention.
The good news is: There isn’t quite enough going on in these songs for our brains get overwhelmed. Our conscious minds can handle 5 to 9 ideas at a time, so both songs make sure that there are no more than 5 instruments going on at once, so they don’t overwhelm our conscious minds.
So where does Adam Schlesinger choose to put in more instruments so our brains have to pay more attention? You guessed it: the chorus. Since our brains are paying more attention to the choruses, we remember them more, and we’ll play them in our heads more. And after enough times playing a song in our heads, we’ll go back and listen to it again just so that we can re-experience the original song, even if we didn’t like the song the first time. I can’t tell you how many songs I didn’t like the first time I heard them, but they got stuck in my head until they grew on me. In psychology, they call that the “mere exposure effect” – that we like something more just by being exposed to it more, even if we didn’t like it the first time. The brilliant part is that when a song gets stuck in our heads and replays over and over, our brains still “count” that as an “exposure” to the song and the mere exposure effect kicks in to make us like it more, even if we’re not actually listening to the song.
There’s another benefit of having more instruments: [whispers:] It makes things louder. So again – more energy. And both songs have a definite structure to how the instrumentals make the energy rise and fall.
Both songs have a steady rise and fall to the energy, but each also continues to build the energy through the whole song until it reaches a kind of climax at the end (more on this later). In each of these songs, we start off with 3 instruments at verse 1. Just 3. Chorus 1 rises to 4 instruments, with a 5th instrument coming in at the end. Verse 2 drops back down to 4 instruments. And the second and third choruses each have 5 instruments the whole time. OK. That was a lot of numbers. So here’s the point: There are more instruments in the choruses than in the verses, but there are also more instruments in the second chorus and the second verse than in the first chorus and the first verse . That steady rise and occasional fall makes us feel like the energy is always building, but it still gives us a chance to calm down, and appreciate the high energy parts we just had.
So pitch and instruments create energy, but these songs have more than just energy. They have tension, because they use dissonance strategically. Dissonance is that feeling when 2 notes are too close together, like this [example]. Ugh. Usually those notes are a whole step [example] or a half-step [example] apart. More ugh. It’s really good at creating tension. There’s a reason that when Hans Zimmer wanted us to be in suspense about whether someone in The Dark Knight was going to die or not, he just gave us nothing but dissonance… for more than 9 minutes. It’s that good at creating tension.
“Stacy’s Mom” and “Just the Girl” use 2 different kinds of dissonance:
The first is dissonance between one note and the next note. Most people think of notes in terms of how much higher or lower they are than the note before it, so even if 2 notes aren’t played at the same time, they can still be too close to each other. That’s one of the many reasons the Jaws theme is so scary: The notes come one after another, and they’re even closer than the notes in that song from The Dark Knight.
“Stacy’s Mom” and “Just the Girl” use this kind of dissonance all over the place. Here are a few examples. Here’s one from “Just the Girl”: “‘Cause she’s”. Here’s one from “Stacy’s Mom”: “got it goin’ on”. Here’s another from “Stacy’s Mom”“I know” (Stacy’s Mom).
The other kind of dissonance these songs use is dissonance between notes that are played at the same time. Now, this is where Adam Schlesinger hits it out of the park: The first note of the chorus of “Stacy’s Mom” is an F#, but the instruments are playing a C and a G. Here’s what that sounds like: [example]. The phrase “not the girl for me” in the chorus of “Stacy’s Mom” has the notes E, G, and A in the vocals while the instruments play a B and an F#. Here’s what those notes sound like together: [examples]. And here’s just one of the chords from “Just the Girl” – a D played over an F# and a C#: [“off” from “off of my feet”]. Here’s what that sounds like: [example]. This kind of dissonance is all over the place in both songs.
But does dissonance somehow make a song more enjoyable? Oddly enough, yes! For example, there’s a scene in one of my favorite novels where a teenager gets to live his perfect day, including playing in a high-stakes basketball game. But the perfect day doesn’t involve beating the other team a-hundred-to-nothing. The other team is just as good as his – almost better – and he knows during the entire game that he could very well lose. His team barely wins, but here’s the important part: He mentioned that if he’d just trounced the other team, he wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. We’ve probably all had times where dissonance, tension, and suspense made things more enjoyable. Why do you think people loved Alfred Hitchcock’s movies so much? Of course, having too much tension isn’t fun, especially in a high-stakes situation. But some tension is necessary for a great experience, especially in music. What are the vacations you remember? The ones where something went wrong. What are the great stories you tell your friends? The ones with tension. So “Just the Girl” and “Stacy’s Mom” strategically use dissonance to make their audience feel more tension so they can enjoy the songs more.
What’s really impressive about these songs is that the pitch, instrument count, and dissonance all rise and fall together. There’s more energy when there’s more tension, and when there’s energy and tension at the same time, it doesn’t just feel like a party – it feels like an action movie with lots of fun, high-stakes scenes, something you might see in Mission: Impossible, or Fast and Furious, or some high-octane movie like that.
And when the energy dies down, the tension dies down. It’s a moment when we can enjoy a break, so that we can appreciate the high-tension, high-energy parts when they come back.
Except during one part.
Since the rest of the song has the pitch, instrument count, and dissonance rising and falling at the same times, the bridge takes the opposite direction: As soon as the bridge of “Just the Girl” begins, there’s high and low energy everywhere. The backing vocals get higher and louder while the lead vocal gets lower and softer, and Adam Schlesinger throws in these 2 chords that are filled with tension: one chord that isn’t even in the same key as the rest of the song and the other is a sus2 chord – a chord that just begs to be resolved.
“Stacy’s Mom” takes a different approach, but it gives the same effect. The bridge has less instruments – because either the lead singer isn’t singing or the lead guitarist isn’t playing (one of the two depending on the part), so there’s less energy. But those instruments are playing much higher notes because there’s a key change right at the beginning of the bridge, so there’s more of a different kind of energy.
Since the energy is all over the place, once we get back to normal, it’s satisfying. And if we’re satisfied, we might as well end the song. So even though the last choruses are almost exactly the same as the 2nd choruses, the last choruses still feel like a fantastic ending because they came right after bridges that have energy and tension rising and falling separately, while these choruses have energy and tension rising and falling together again.
We sometimes think of structure as something boring or constraining, but Adam Schlesinger takes the opposite approach with these songs. Here are his words on intentionally writing songs in specific ways:
That kind of… craft side of it is still really appealing to me and… I think sometimes when you… are a person who writes like that, the downside is people think… oh, well, it’s, like, some kind of trick and there’s no real… emotion or something. But that’s not true at all. I think those kinds of songs can actually end up being more emotional if you do it right and depending on the context….
“Just the Girl” and “Stacy’s Mom” are perfect examples of this. These songs are more emotional because of their craft, not less, because these songs use their structure to get audiences to really feel something. What they’re feeling is energy, and tension, and fun, but it’s still feeling something because of their structure.
And in the process, Adam Schlesinger really gets to the heart of structure.
He’s not just following the “rule” that choruses should be big. He’s giving the chorus more energy and more tension so the we get a more enjoyable experience.
He’s not just following the “rule” that verses should be smaller than choruses. He’s taking away the verses’ energy and tension so that we get a breath of fresh air.
He’s not just following the “rule” that bridges should be different. He’s making the bridges different enough that the choruses afterward feel even better.
Adam Schlesinger isn’t just going through the motions or following the rules because they’re rules. He’s following the rules in a way that makes the songs more emotionally impactful by using the reasons the rules are here in the first place.
So as he changes the pitch, the number of instruments, and the dissonance, Adam Schlesinger creates an emotional structure out of the song’s structure that gives us the same highs and lows as an action movie because the tension and energy both build, and build, and build and then fall; and build and build, and build, and then fall again. That way, we enjoy the experience so much that we want to hear it again. When it comes to “Just the Girl” and “Stacy’s Mom”, that’s at least part of what makes us keep coming back for more.
[music: “I’m in love with Stacy’s mom”]
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, you can check us out at SongAppealOfficial.com. You can also support this channel on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal. Talk with you guys soon, and in the meantime, enjoy your music.
Stacy’s Mom instrumental: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUS1xP7oMtw
Just the Girl instrumental: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYSEYD10UXg
Basketball sound effects from Sound Ex Machina: youtube.com/watch?v=Dgnv2MYmCXk
Click Five Interview quote: http://www.popentertainment.com/clickfive.htm
Adam Schlesinger Quote [STRONG LANGUAGE WARNING]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU5GPzjkiIU