Why does pop music sound so simple and generic?

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We have teams of the best songwriters from all around the world writing chart toppers with funding from big music labels. So why is pop music so generic and simple? And why is it that when a new hit is released we hear it 100x in the first day? Find out the psychology below

A psychology theory on musical preference

Daniel Berlyne’s Inverted U theory. This theory proposes that preference for a piece of music is informed by familiarity, complexity and unusualness of the music to the listener. On the image above, the inverted-U represents our preference with two opposite ends of the spectrum. On the extreme left familiar, low complexity and generic music such as a lullaby or nursery rhyme. On the extreme right, unfamiliar, high complexity and unusual music such as avant-guard free jazz. Of course we all have different music listening habits and music skill and possibly a musician studying jazz may not find avant-guard free jazz so complex or unfamiliar. Repeated exposure to a piece of music increases familiarity and moves the preference of the music from right to left through the inverted-U.

This leads to one of three situations

  1. Highly complex, unfamiliar and unusual music becomes more preferred up to a point and then becomes less preferred
  2. Medium complexity, familiarity and unusual music decreases from preferred to less preferred.
  3. Low complex, very familiar and generic music is still not preferred.

How does this theory apply to pop music, Christmas music and progressive music?

Christmas music: low

I think we can all relate to the horrible musical experience that leads up to Christmas. The same 10 tunes repeated back to back, every year for 2 months, in every retail store near you. This brings awareness to the customer of Christmas spirit and increases sales for the store. For store managers, I would be concerned about the implications on staff’s wellbeing and if this validates increased sales. In extreme cases this could be considered noise pollution.

Pop music: medium

This is an industry, the faster and greater number of songs/albums/concerts we consume, the greater profit. What the industry wants is short, simple and generic songs that we enjoy on the first listen to engage us, and possibly for us to purchase and then for us to move on from. Radio hosts achieve this cycle by:

  1. Building hype around a “pre-determined hit single” with snippets from the singles chorus to warm up the listener
  2. Playing the single multiple times a day when the single is released
  3. Once the single is over played, beating the dead horse (for any late adopters)
  4. Moving on the next hit single.

You’ve probably heard of fast fashion, well this is fast music. A self-perpetuating cycle that is very beneficial to the music industry.

Progressive music: high

Ever had a song grow on you? The first time you might not like it, but after 10 listens you love it…and after 20 you don’t like it anymore. This is the type of music that grows you as a music listener, challenges your music taste. Symphonic and polyphonic classical pieces are great examples of this because each listen you hear something different, hidden in the complexity. It’s also a slow and initially unpleasant procedure.

Our greatest pop composers aren’t re-inventing the wheel or pushing boundaries because it would impact sales. Instead they focus minimal friction with catchy hooks and rip-offs to get listeners enjoying the music from day one.

Can we avoid the inverted U theory?

Today I listened to Thrift shop by Macklemore, it has been long enough that it’s awesome again. This is known as dishabituation, where avoidance of an overexposed stimulus (thrift shop in this case) increases in preference.

What if I had listened to an altered version of Thrift shop. For example, an unplugged or acoustic version, instrumental version, dance cover or remix, or even a free jazz interpretation. This music would be similar but not true repeated exposure, slowing the process through the inverted U theory. This concept is similar to the western classical form known as a theme and variations where each movement takes the musical themes and uses them in a different style, emotional expression or purpose.

What if the music was never the same and never repeated?

This is how Can’t Sleep App works. Ambient background music tends to be familiar, low complexity and generic compared to other styles. Listening to the same ambient music very quickly becomes repetitive and unpleasant. The Can’t Sleep App combats this habituation by composing new music in Realtime every second. Like a theme and variation, the app composes a theme and varies it. This theme however is intangible with each re-iteration of the theme becoming a new theme which is then re-iterated and so on. Exposure and familiarity cannot increase because the generative music is always changing.