Psychology of hit songs (4 keys)


In this article, we’ll discuss the psychology of hit songs. Specifically, how the principles of Psychology can be exploited to make a hit song. I’ll focus on four key concepts- patterns, emotional themes, group identity, and violation of expectations.

It’s hard to imagine life without music. Despite music being an integral part of all human cultures and all known civilizations, very little is understood as to why it affects us the way it does.

The variety of music is staggering. There’s music for all seasons and emotions.

Some musical compositions make you want to jump around and punch someone in the face, while others make you want to relax and hug someone. There’s music that you can listen to when you feel terrible and there’s music that you can tune into when you’re elated.

Imagine you’re in a band and planning to release a new song. You’ve not had much success with your previous songs. This time you want to ensure that you’ll produce a hit.

In your desperation, you hire researchers that study all the previous hit songs in the history of music to identify the common tone, pitch, theme and musical structure of these songs to give you a recipe for a hit song.

You also hire a psychologist who tells you what factors you need to take care of in order to make a song that people will like. Let’s explore those factors:

1) Patterns

“Make sure your song has recurring patterns, not only of vocal parts but musical parts too”, the psychologist tells you.

You’ll find recurring patterns in every song. In every song, there’s a portion (whether musical or vocal) that is repeated over and over. This serves two important psychological functions…

First, it takes advantage of the human cognitive function of pattern recognition. We humans have a knack to recognize patterns in random events. When we recognize a pattern in a song and hear it over and over, we begin to like the song because its patterns start becoming familiar to us.

Familiarity breeds likeability. We like the things we’re familiar with. They make us feel safe because we know how to deal with such things.

Unfamiliarity causes slight mental discomfort in us because we’re unsure how to deal with unfamiliar things.

The second important function of a recurring pattern in a song is to aid memory. If there’s a recurring pattern in a song, it’s easily absorbed into our memory and we’re able to recall and hum that pattern quite often. This is why the songs that we like the most tend to be the ones that we remember most.

Notice how the melodious introductory tune is repeated in this Beethoven masterpiece: 

2) Emotional themes

“Your song should have some kind of an emotional theme embedded in it”, the psychologist suggests you.

You’re much more likely to like a song if it arouses emotion in you. This is due to a phenomenon that I call ‘emotional inertia’.

Emotional inertia is a psychological state where we tend to seek activities that sustain our current emotional state.

For example, if you’re feeling happy you’ll seek activities that continue to make you feel happy and if you’re sad you tend to continue doing things that make you sad. This is why we like listening to songs that match our current emotional state- songs that describe exactly how we feel.

So deliberately trying to elicit an emotion from a song is a good idea. People will like that and the odds of your song becoming a hit will increase.

3) Group identification

“Ask yourself, ‘Which group can strongly identify with this song?’”, is the next suggestion.

There are many songs that became a hit not just because they sounded good but also because they spoke to a certain group of people.

If a song contains lyrics that describe exactly how a major group of the population feels, it’s more likely to become a hit.

For example, if racism is a big problem in your country, you can write a song highlighting the ills of racism or describing how victims of racial hatred feel.

If there’s a presidential candidate that a large group of people hates, then making a song that mocks that presidential candidate is definitely going to be a hit in that group.

We like songs that match our world-views and belief systems. Such songs maintain and reinforce our beliefs- a very important psychological function.

4) Breaking conventions, slightly

“Break conventions, but not too much” is the final suggestion you’re given.
If you’re an average 25-year-old adult, you’ve probably heard thousands of songs by now.

When you listen to a new song, you have certain expectations in your mind. If the new song that you hear is similar to a thousand songs that you’ve heard before, it’ll be bland and boring. 

Also, if it violates your expectations too much, it’ll sound like noise and you’ll not pay any attention to it.

But if it violates your expectations just a bit, there’s a big chance you’ll like it. 

A slightly unconventional song excites our brain and hits that sweet spot between familiarity and unfamiliarity. We like songs that startle our minds, but not too much.

Heavy metal music, for example, is not mainstream music. Therefore, when people are introduced to it they’re repelled by it.

However, if they listen to metal genres that are closer to the music they already listen to (pop, country, hip-hop, etc.) they slowly begin to like heavy metal too. And before you know it, they’re already into extreme metal genres like death metal and black metal. 

music psychology
Many people find it hard to get into genres like Heavy Metal that grossly violate their expectations of what music should sound like.

When we were younger, things were different. Everything was new to us and we didn’t have any expectations yet. This is probably why we liked almost all the songs that we listened to as kids. Even today, such songs are enjoyable and bring back good memories.

You can probably name 10 different songs that you hate but if I ask you, “Name one song that you hated as a kid?” you’ll probably have to think long and hard before you come up with a name, if any.

Using psychology for success

Now here’s a fun fact: A band actually did hire people to study all the previous hit songs so that they could ensure their next song would be a hit!

They invested a lot of money in that research and ultimately came up with a single. They released it and waited with bated breath to watch it blast all the top charts.

Nothing, nada, zilch, zippo.

Far from becoming a hit, no one paid any attention to the song. But the band had invested way too much to quit at this point.

The experts realized that the song was probably too unfamiliar and that something should be done to make it more familiar. They decided to sandwich the song between two familiar and well-known hit songs on the radio.

The idea was that when people listen to the song over and over along with the other familiar songs, the familiarity of other songs will spill over to the song sandwiched between them.

Within weeks the song became a major hit.