“Unwell” by Matchbox Twenty – Season 3, Episode 05

How can predictability be enjoyable?

When we’re listening to a song, we’re working off of expectations we’ve built out of all the hours, and years, and sometimes decades that we’ve had listening to music. Expectations about what sounds will come next. When a song comes on that you know, you can expect every note, every chord, every beat.

But when a song comes on that you don’t know, you can take some educated guesses about what the next note will be, the next chord, the next drum beat. I know right now, you can’t tell, but [music stops] you can probably feel what should come next, even if you can’t describe it. [music finishes]

Every moment that you listen to music, your mind is predicting the next moment of music. Sometimes, you get a surprise. Sometimes, you get exactly what you expect.

Now, you might think a melody that just does what you expect would be boring. So how can a song make itself more enjoyable by fulfilling your expectations?


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 “Unwell” by Matchbox Twenty.

You can find the full transcript for this episode, references, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/Unwell.

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

This episode will go into the science of certain notes on the major scale and how they help us like the music we like. If you want to learn more about that, check out Coursera’s program “Music As Biology: What We Like to Hear and Why” at Bit.ly/MusicAsBiology.

[Music]


I love this song. Not just for Rob Thomas’s voice, but for the melody. This was a tune that my then-girlfriend and I would belt on roadtrips and sing around a piano. This was a tune that a surprising amount of my piano students knew before they were 13. This was a tune that perfectly played off of people’s expectations to help us love this song.

To understand why, I interviewed an expert about this song. [CA:] “I’m Claire Arthur.” She researches everything from melody, to harmony, to rhythm, [CA:] “But I’m also interested in how those things set up musical expectations or create emotional reactions in a listener.”

And in the case of “Unwell”, it uses the fifth note on a scale and the interval of a fifth to create an expectation that it fulfills over and over.


The fifth note of a scale (or the fifth “scale degree”) permeates the chorus. I’m going to play the song and clap every time Rob Thomas sings the fifth scale degree in the chorus [bolded syllables represent claps]:


But I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell

I know right now you can’t tell

But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see

A different side of me

I’m not crazy, I’m just a little impaired

I know right now you don’t care

But soon enough you’re gonna think of me

And how I used to be.


That is a lot of scale degree 5!

Now, each scale degree has its own function, its own purpose, its own distinct feeling.

[CA:] If you asked a large group of people (for example) “what’s it’s like to eat a pear?”, their descriptions would likely be very similar, you’d find similar descriptive words like “it has a grainy texture and it’s juicy”. You have a similar kind of thing when you ask people “What does scale degree 1 sound like?” or “What does scale degree 5 sound like? If you go from individual to individual, they tend to look a lot the same. The idea is that a listener might recognize some distinctive feeling, some character or quality associated with some musical moment.

This difference is distinct enough that colleges and universities train people to instantly recognize how each scale degree feels in a class called “Aural Skills”. And each of those scale degrees sets up the next note and makes us expect certain notes. Some scale degrees really want to move up to 1, or down to 5, or up to 3, but they all have one thing in common: [CA:] “everything wants to go back eventually to 1.” Scale degree 1 acts a bit like a gravity well, pulling everything towards it. And scale degree 5 is at the edge of that gravity well. It feels unstable. It makes us want to feel some kind of resolution. It makes us expect that we’re going to hear scale degree 1 pretty soon. Maybe not immediately, but stay a while, and maybe then you’ll see it move to scale degree 1.

Just by singing the fifth note of a scale, Rob Thomas is helping us expect to hear scale degree 1. And almost every time he sings scale degree 1, he immediately moves straight to scale degree 1.


But the tension doesn’t just come from the note he’s singing. The tension also comes from how he gets there. Rob Thomas isn’t just singing the fifth scale degree. He’s jumping up and down by the interval of a fifth. An interval is the distance between 2 notes, and a fifth is the distance it would take to get from the first scale degree to the fifth scale degree. Listen to how he uses that fifth in the chorus [bolded syllables represent fifths]:


But I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell

I know right now you can’t tell

But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see

A different side of me

I’m not crazy, I’m just a little impaired

I know right now you don’t care

But soon enough you’re gonna think of me

And how I used to be.

He could have got to fifth scale degree by dropping down a second, or jumping up a third, or dropping down a 4th. But he didn’t. He chose to leap up by a fifth. And he chose to leap up by a fifth right after he spent most of the verse hanging around scale degree 1 with really small intervals. [CA:] “and then suddenly you have sort of this upward shift in the chorus”. And the higher the note, the higher the tension. [CA:] “This fifth is leaping up, and so in that sense, it’s creating tension.”

So how does Matchbox Twenty resolves the tension from that fifth? By going straight back to the most stable, most resolved note. It’s not just that note 5 makes us expect note 1. It’s that the leap from note 1 to note 5 gives us enough tension that we expect note 1. And that’s exactly what we get: Note 1.


Now, you’d expect that when we expect something, and then we get it, that would be pretty boring.

So why is predictability enjoyable in this song?

In his book Sweet Anticipation (which is specifically about expecting certain notes) the psychologist David Huron wrote “organisms respond better to expected events than unexpected events” (pg 12). if you expect something, you can prepare for it. You can know if it’s bad or not before it happens. It won’t catch you off guard. To your brain, tomorrow really might be good for something.

He continued to explain that your brain trains itself to predict your own personal future. That way, you can get better at expecting things and not getting caught off guard. So how does a brain train itself? The same way you train anything else: Reward it for doing things right. When you hear something that gives your brain a reason to think “I know what’s coming next”, you start playing this neural game show. If you’re right, you get a tiny hit of dopamine. If you’re wrong, you get nothing. You might even get quote-unquote “punished”. And your brain plays this game show with everything down to the music you listen to. So when Rob Thomas leaps up a fifth to get to scale degree 5, your brain thinks “I know what’s coming next. I’m feeling like I’m headed for a… [note 1]. He’s totally gonna sing [note 1], isn’t he?” And when he does exactly what you expect, your brain says “Ha! Nailed it!” and rewards itself with some dopamine.

So as counterintuitive as it is, a song that’s easy to predict can be more enjoyable because it’s easy to predict.


When this song gives us the fifth scale degree and the interval of a fifth at the same time, we start to have musical expectations. And since those expectations are met, we get to enjoy this song so much more.

People sometimes criticize pop music for being too simple, too predictable, or being exactly what you’d expect. Surprise can be enjoyable, too, and we’ll get to that in another episode. But biologically, our brain has to learn to predict what’s coming so we won’t go crazy or a little unwell. So sometimes, we need something predictable, something simple. Sometimes, a song’s predictability can be its greatest strength.


[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.

You can find more from Claire Arthur at ClaireArthur.com.

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


Some music provided by Motivational Soft Rock and produced by OrangeHead: https://youtu.be/Q9GyxsMx38. http://www.orangehead.net.