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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-Sep-08


Friday 12-September-08

What makes a good tune?

It's something that had bothered me for years -- why do some tunes have wide appeal, some gain cult following whilst others fall on stony ground? Here are some musings (though academic accuracy is not guaranteed).

True cult popularity (in the underground, not sect sense) is a sociological phenomenon. Cultic popularity, such as is afforded to sci-fi series can be also given to songs where, after a (usually) short and accelerated period of promotion, the song becomes so popular that (a) you dare not say you don't like it and (b) it gets played so much it displaces its competition and gives you plenty of time to become familiar with it. I guess it's effectively the same as fashion, though perhaps within a limited audience set.

So there are sociological reasons for popularity, but is there anything inherent in the song itself? One of the aspects of the human brain is the the way that it handles patterns -- in fact you could describe the whole thing as a 'pattern machine'. Because of the importance to survival of recognizing patterns, whether it be a chorus or sounds of trumpets, patterns occur in music, our brains give us a shot of natural opiates whenever we recognize one. And music, of course, is full of patterns. Our brains also reward us for spotting new patterns. Music, again, fits the bill very well.

So why don't all songs set us alight? It seems there is something deeper. There are people who know theory and/or practice and can create nice music without too much effort. There are scales and chords, sequences that work and sequences that are not. Pop songs are famous for having a 'hook' in, a little bit of variation that hooks the listen like a fish 'into the groove'. And yet it's still difficult to nail down the magic. Some songs you know are great from the word go. Others grow on you. Still other you hate, but are liked by enough other people that you wonder what 'good' really means.

Artists might hate this but I suspect there is more we can predict, even to the point of automating good music. Computers already can compose fair music and I suspect it won't be far off when a computer system sucks in the top twenty for the past 50 years then spits out an endless stream of chart-toppers. Now there's a thought.

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