The science behind 'hit' songs - Part 1
Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, says that record companies use predictive analytics to track people's listening habits to create a strategy to make any song into a 'hit' song.
It attempts to answer the following:
1. How do record companies observe and track listener habits?
2. What is common among listeners' favorite songs?
3. Where does this commonality matter?
4. How does this common factor originate?
5. How can we use this effectively to build music businesses and life?
If you are a patient reader, continue reading for the answers and the excerpts.
Here are some quotes from the book that mentions how record companies observe and track listener habits.
Suspecting and knowing, however, are two different things. How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying every detail of their lives?
That certainty wasn’t based solely on intuition. At the time, the record business was undergoing a transformation similar to the data-driven shifts occurring at Target and elsewhere. Just as retailers were using computer algorithms to forecast shoppers’ habits, music and radio executives were using computer programs to forecast listeners’ habits. A company named Polyphonic HMI—a collection of artificial intelligence experts and statisticians based in Spain—had created a program called Hit Song Science that analyzed the mathematical characteristics of a tune and predicted its popularity. By comparing the tempo, pitch, melody, chord progression, and other factors of a particular song against the thousands of hits stored in Polyphonic HMI’s database, Hit Song Science could deliver a score that forecasted if a tune was likely to succeed.
The program had predicted that Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me, for instance, would be a hit after most of the industry had dismissed the album. (It went on to sell ten million copies and win eight Grammys.) It had predicted that “Why Don’t You and I” by Santana would be popular, despite DJs’ doubts. (It reached number three on the Billboard Top 40 list.)
Apparently, listeners' favorite songs have something in common - familiarity.
People listen to Top 40 because they want to hear their favorite songs or songs that sound just like their favorite songs. When something different comes on, they’re offended. They don’t want anything unfamiliar.” Arista had spent a lot of money promoting “Hey Ya!” The music and radio industries needed it to be a success. Hit songs are worth a fortune—not only because people buy the song itself, but also because a hit can convince listeners to abandon video games and the Internet for radio. A hit can sell sports cars on television and clothing inside trendy stores. Hit songs are at the root of dozens of spending habits that advertisers, TV stations, bars, dance clubs—even technology firms such as Apple—rely on.
That question—how do you make a song into a hit?—has been puzzling the music industry ever since it began, but it’s only in the past few decades that people have tried to arrive at scientific answers.
One of the puzzles Meyer most loved was figuring out why, during some songs, listeners never seemed to change the radio dial. Among DJs, these songs are known as “sticky.” Meyer had tracked hundreds of sticky songs over the years, trying to divine the principles that made them popular. His office was filled with charts and graphs plotting the characteristics of various sticky songs.
One night, Meyer sat down and started listening to a bunch of sticky songs in a row, one right after the other, over and over again. As he did, he started to notice a similarity among them. It wasn’t that the songs sounded alike. Some of them were ballads, others were pop tunes. However, they all seemed similar in that each sounded exactly like what Meyer expected to hear from that particular genre. They sounded familiar—like everything else on the radio—but a little more polished, a bit closer to the golden mean of the perfect song.
This familiarity makes sense, especially in radio shows.
Sometimes stations will do research by calling listeners on the phone, and play a snippet of a song, and listeners will say, ‘I’ve heard that a million times. I’m totally tired of it,’ ” Meyer told me. “But when it comes on the radio, your subconscious says, ‘I know this song! I’ve heard it a million times! I can sing along!’ Sticky songs are what you expect to hear on the radio. Your brain secretly wants that song, because it’s so familiar to everything else you’ve already heard and liked. It just sounds right.
There's also, a scientific explanation for people going behind 'familiar' tunes.
There is evidence that a preference for things that sound “familiar” is a product of our neurology. Scientists have examined people’s brains as they listen to music, and have tracked which neural regions are involved in comprehending aural stimuli. Listening to music activates numerous areas of the brain, including the auditory cortex, the thalamus, and the superior parietal cortex. These same areas are also associated with pattern recognition and helping the brain decide which inputs to pay attention to and which to ignore. The areas that process music, in other words, are designed to seek out patterns and look for familiarity.
This affinity towards familiarity is mainly due to music being a complicated art form.
Music, after all, is complicated. The numerous tones, pitches, overlapping melodies, and competing sounds inside almost any song—or anyone speaking on a busy street, for that matter—are so overwhelming that, without our brain’s ability to focus on some sounds and ignore others, everything would seem like a cacophony of noise. Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound. Just as the scientists at MIT discovered that behavioral habits prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by the endless decisions we would otherwise have to make each day, listening habits exist because, without them, it would be impossible to determine if we should concentrate on our child’s voice, the coach’s whistle, or the noise from a busy street during a Saturday soccer game. Listening habits allow us to unconsciously separate important noises from those that can be ignored. That’s why songs that sound “familiar”—even if you’ve never heard them before—are sticky. Our brains are designed to prefer auditory patterns that seem similar to what we’ve already heard. When Celine Dion releases a new song—and it sounds like every other song she’s sung, as well as most of the other songs on the radio—our brains unconsciously crave its recognizability and the song becomes sticky. You might never attend a Celine Dion concert, but you’ll listen to her songs on the radio, because that’s what you expect to hear as you drive to work. Those songs correspond perfectly to your habits. This insight helped explain why “Hey Ya!” was failing on the radio, despite the fact that Hit Song Science and music executives were sure it would be a hit. The problem wasn’t that “Hey Ya!” was bad. The problem was that “Hey Ya!” wasn’t familiar. Radio listeners didn’t want to make a conscious decision each time they were presented with a new song. Instead, their brains wanted to follow a habit. Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This sounds like all the other songs I’ve ever liked”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.
Now, how is this familiarity created?
THE FAMILIARITY LOOP - Listeners are happy to sit through a song they might say they dislike, as long as it seems like something they’ve heard before. So how do DJs convince listeners to stick with songs such as “Hey Ya!” long enough for them to become familiar? By dressing something new in old clothes, and making the unfamiliar seem familiar.
To make “Hey Ya!” a hit, DJs soon realized, they needed to make the song feel familiar. And to do that, something special was required. The problem was that computer programs such as Hit Song Science were pretty good at predicting people’s habits. But sometimes, those algorithms found habits that hadn’t actually emerged yet, and when companies market to habits we haven’t adopted or, even worse, are unwilling to admit to ourselves—like our secret affection for sappy ballads—firms risk going out of business.
“Hey, Ya!” needed to become part of an established listening habit to become a hit. And to become part of a habit, it had to be slightly camouflaged at first. So at WIOQ in Philadelphia—as well as at other stations around the nation—DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular. “It’s textbook playlist theory now,” said Tom Webster, a radio consultant. “Play a new song between two consensus popular hits.” DJs, however, didn’t air “Hey Ya!” alongside just any kind of hit. They sandwiched it between the types of songs that Rich Meyer had discovered were uniquely sticky, from artists like Blu Cantrell, 3 Doors Down, Maroon 5, and Christina Aguilera.
Listeners really want songs they already like. So you have to make new songs seem familiar as fast as possible.”
When WIOQ first started playing “Hey Ya!” in early September—before the sandwiching started—26.6 percent of listeners changed the station whenever it came on. By October, after playing it alongside sticky hits, that “tune-out factor” dropped to 13.7 percent. By December, it was 5.7 percent. Other major radio stations around the nation used the same sandwiching technique, and the tune-out rate followed the same pattern. And as listeners heard “Hey Ya!” again and again, it became familiar. Once the song had become popular, WIOQ was playing “Hey Ya!” as many as fifteen times a day. People’s listening habits had shifted to expect—crave, even—“Hey Ya!” A “Hey Ya!” habit emerged. The song went on to win a Grammy, sell more than 5.5 million albums, and earn radio stations millions of dollars.
Whether selling a new song, a new food, or a new crib, the lesson is the same: If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.
There's always a takeaway from music to other areas of life. Here's how we can use this familiarity loop to improve our lives.
The usefulness of this lesson isn’t limited to large corporations, government agencies, or radio companies hoping to manipulate our tastes. These same insights can be used to change how we live.
“We’re cracking the code on how to keep people at the gym,” Lazarus told me. “People want to visit places that satisfy their social needs. Getting people to exercise in groups makes it more likely they’ll stick with a workout. You can change the health of the nation this way.
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