Biopsychology Cognition, Intelligence and Language Emotion

Ep 229: What Makes a Song Popular? How We Detect Melody

What Makes a Song Popular?Why are some songs popular? Guess what – psychologists actually know a lot of the answers. In this episode we’ll listen to excerpts from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, as well as Noisestorm’s Ignite, Adele’s Someone Like You, the Enterprise Theme from Star Trek, and even two pieces of music from the motion picture Koyaanisqatsi. We’ll especially deconstruct Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to figure out why it is such a popular song. Many thanks to musician extraordinaire – Steve Kessler.



Key Points

    • The Mere Exposure effect: if you hear anything enough times (or meet anyone enough times), they “grow on you”, i.e., liking increases with familiarity)
    • We find repetition in music across cultures
    • One segment of a song serves as a cue to the next segment, allowing us to know what’s coming next (we even come to predict what what song will come next if we listen to the same sequence of songs over and over again)
    • “Repetition invites us into music as participants” – watch the video below which summarizes Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis’ research
    • One of my listeners, Hilary, told me about this YouTube clip which perfectly captures the idea of the Mere Exposure effect when it comes to songs:




Music Featured in this Episode





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  1. Avatar


    October 28, 2014

    Thank you so much!

  2. Avatar


    October 28, 2014

    Fantastic podcasts. Thank you so much for the amazing and tireless work that you do. You’ve reignited my love and passion for psychology. Mel

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    October 28, 2014

    I agree about Koyaanisqatsi – very hypnotic movie to watch. I have it on DVD. I hadn’t heard of Baraka but I see some amazingly positive comments and ratings for it on IMDB. I’ll definitely have to see it.

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    October 28, 2014

    Althought the Koyaanisqatsi music sounds repetitive on its own, it is great in the movie. It reinforces the visual impact so well. The last time I saw Koyaanisqatsi was at the Sydney Opera House. The music was played live by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Phillip Glass. Brilliant!
    If you like the “qtasi” series, you might also like ‘Baraka’ which is directed by Ron Fricke who as the cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi. It is fantastic. He has made another film called Samsra, but I haven’t seen it yet.

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    October 28, 2014

    Yup, you’re right. I see the problem. I’ll fix it this morning. thx for letting me know!

  6. Avatar


    October 28, 2014

    Thank you for answering. There’s no download link on single post page either. When I checked the archive I noticed the problem starts in July 2014. In June, there’s a player (flowplayer) and Download link below it for every episode but since July there’s new type of player (libsyn) and no Download link. Actually Episode 220 is good example because there are both players on the episode page and only one of them has Download link.
    I’m using Google Chrome as a browser but I checked IE also and the problem persists (operation system is Windows 7).
    So my conclusion is that the problem is in the libsyn player.

  7. Avatar


    October 28, 2014

    Huh. That’s strange…I noticed that you only see the download link when your on the single post page. You won’t see it on the homepage for example. Does that help?

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    October 28, 2014

    You are doing great job with your podcasts. I’ve listened the whole archive while running and I’ve learned so much. But with the new webpage I can’t find the download link for the episodes anymore. Isn’t dowloading allowed anymore?

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    October 28, 2014

    Interesting. I always think of poetics with melody and a voice trying to say something meaningful. I never understand lyrics in songs (I know there are lots of sites dedicated to humorous misinterpretation of lyrics so I’m not entirely alone). Can’t stand opera.
    Your podcast reminded me of one I heard once about relationship between sound and words (i.e. ‘B’ sound in Big connotes big whereas “S’ in Small sounds small helping convey the concept of smallness – work by Chomsky perhaps?).
    Yeah, melody is interesting stuff (as are other elements of music – I always think of Beatles for harmony. Never seemed to have trouble with rhythm but lyrics are tricky. I’m still not sure if Nirvana is saying All alone is all we are, or All I know is all we are or All annulled?)

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