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

What makes some songs so 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 “Hallelujah” to figure out why it is such a popular song. Many thanks to musician extraordinaire – Steve Kessler.


Key Points

  • Humans are pattern seekers (see this episode on Gestalt Principles of Perception and we seek patterns in what we see and what we hear
  • 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 sebment, 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
  • The Psychology of Music: The Role of Expectations and Minor Chords
  • 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




Ep 227: I Remember How I Felt (Or Do You)?

Do “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” or are we actually pretty happy most of the time? As it turns out humans are far more resilient than you think. Ever heard of the term “affective forecasting“? It’s something we do every day and very often we make mistakes doing it. In this episode you’ll learn more about positive psychology from the authors of a new book called Pollyanna’s Revenge. Another myth put to rest: “depressive realism” – the idea that there’s an advantage to being depressed – that depressed people are more realistic about the world than non-depressed people. That’s not so either and I think you’ll find a lot of interesting information in this episode about what affects your own level of happiness. Join me for a fascinating discussion about how we really react to the ups and downs of life.

Resources on Pollyanna’s Revenge and on Positive Psychology

Ep 221: The Facebook Experiment: Reaction from Psychologists

Facebook Experiment on Social ContagionYou may have heard that Facebook manipulated the content of user’s New Feeds during January of 2012 so that some users saw more positive posts than others, which other Facebook users saw more negative posts. They interpret this as an indication of Social Contagion on a massive scale (almost 700,000 Facebook users were part of the study). How did this affect these users? Did those who say negative posts become more negative and vice versa? The answer is that the research indicates that some of them – though a very, very few of them – did subsequently write posts that were similar to the ones that saw on their News Feed. How big of an effect is this? Is it unethical? Does agreeing to Facebook’s Terms of Use constitute “informed consent“. I examine these questions in this episode of The Psych Files.


Resources on the Facebook Study

Below is a map I put together with resources on the Facebook experiment. It’s a large map and if you want to view it in a larger size click here.


Create your own mind maps at MindMeister

Again – here’s the link to the map that will open full screen.

Ep 192: An Example of How Psychoanalysts Really Interpret Dreams

Dream AnalysisWhat do psychologists really think about your dreamsdo they have meaning? In this episode I talk about what psychologists think today about dreams. You probably know that Freud thought that dreams had a manifest content (the people and things that happened in the dream that you remember) and a latent content (the unconscious meaning of the dream). Do we still think this? Also: can you look up in a book or online to find out what your dreams meant? If you dream about a cat for example – what does this mean? In this episode I explore these questions with author and psychoanalyst Kerry Malawista. She and her colleagues discuss this topic in their book, Wearing My Tutu To Analysis. I’ll talk to her and include my own thoughts about whether or not dreams have meaning and whether you should be taking the time to analyze them.


In earlier episodes of The Psych Files I asked you not to dismiss Freud’s ideas. Too often we only hear about his (100 year old) ideas on sex. There is A LOT more to Freud and this episode will convince you of that.

Resources on Psychoanalysis and Dreams


Ep 190: Why Do You Get So Absorbed in that Book (or Movie)?

Have you ever become so immersed in a book or movie that you actually felt like the character? Or you felt the character’s pain or joy? Why does this happen? When does this happen? What is it about the book or the movie and its characters that draws us in like this? It’s amazing isn’t it? To be so moved like this. Psychologists have studied this experience and we have some ideas regarding what factors have to be present in order for this to happen. And would you believe that this understand might help us to combat racism and bullying? Pretty amazing stuff. Join me as I explore what psychologists call “experience taking“.


Experience Taking