Have you ever listened to a song only up to your favorite part and, once you got your fix, you skipped to the next song? I have. Perhaps our attention spans have become so short we can’t pay attention to a full song. Or perhaps there is another reason we skip a song after our favorite part — because the structure of the whole song isn’t appealing enough to keep you around longer.
Music is In the Moment
Do we even perceive the entire song as a whole? A long line of research shows that music listening is primarily "in the moment" and we are sensitive to only the local aspects of songs. This explains why I can listen to the chorus of my favorite song over and over again. For example, sometimes a song gives me the "chills" when a certain beat plays or chorus is performed. There is nothing that compares to this great feeling when a song hits your chord.
In a recent study by Rolison and Edworthy, they elaborate on this feeling of "chills" when you really love a song. In particular, the cause of this chill sensation is that blood flow to the brain increases, along with a faster heartbeat and faster breathing. That explains why I get a tingling sensation behind my ears when I get to my favorite part of Ed Sheeran's Photograph on X. Theories like this have led many to believe the fluctuating and subtle nature of music listening must mean that most people enjoy music more as an "in the moment" stimulus, rather than enjoying a whole composition.
For me, I often skip the song after I get this chill sensation and move on to the next in pursuit of my next musical high. And at this point if I am listening to music with anyone, they scream "can't you just listen to a whole song!" Perhaps, they are right and I am missing something—at least that is what Rolison and Edworthy concluded.
The Whole Song is Greater than its Parts
There must be a reason composers focus on making sure that every piece of the entire songs fits perfectly together as a whole. Rolison and Edworthy tested the "in the moment" theory against the "whole song" theory to determine whether we had a full understanding of the musical experience. It is possible that composers are simply anal retentive perfectionists that just want everything to be perfect, even if listeners don't really care. Or maybe the years of experience in the musical arts has led them to understand more fully how people experience music that us lay folks don't quite perceive.
Songs have structures, some simpler and some more complex. An example of a structure is a pattern like intro—verse 1–chorus 1–verse 2–chorus 2–solo—chorus 3–extro. Verses tend to carry the lyrical narrative and the choruses provide the songs repeating aspects. A key aspect to modern pop music is the use of an alternating verse/chorus structure, like I showed you.
Using unfamiliar songs by signed artists, Rolison and Edworthy looked at whether the local and structural features of contemporary music are salient and important to untrained listeners. What did they find? Local as well as structural features of contemporary music impact the enjoyment of a listener's experience of a song. We aren’t hopeless! In fact, we use the words of the song as cues for the structure of the song; by the lyrics, we can place the verse in its place in the structure of the song. Try it—see if you can play a verse and tell where it fits in the songs structure.
Make sure to let your songs get to the end; you’ll enjoy it more. It’s science. We haven’t lost any ability to enjoy the whole song. We are just changing how we understand music. One thing's for certain - the relationship between the songwriter and the listener is stronger than ever. I am excited to see how music keeps evolving!
Clay for SndControl
See Rolison, J. J. & Edworthy, J. (March 2013). The whole song is greater than the sum of its parts: Local and structural features in music listening. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 23(1), 33-48.
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