The science behind 'killing' a song when you listen to it too much

Why does a song you used to love end up losing its magic?

Kashmira Gander
Wednesday 10 May 2017 15:45 BST
Even chart-topping artists like Ed Sheeran aren't immune to their songs dying
Even chart-topping artists like Ed Sheeran aren't immune to their songs dying (Getty)

One minute a song is catchy as hell and all you can listen to for days on end, then suddenly it stops sounding quite so good. You can't put your finger on it, but it feels like it's just not interacting with your brain in the same way. Eventually, it joins the list of songs you’ve killed by listening to them too many times.

So, what exactly happens inside our brains that makes a song lose its magic? It turns out no one knows for certain, but there are a few theories about the cause of this phenomenon.

Neuroscientists believe that our brains go through two stages when we listen to a piece of music that gives us the chills. The caudate nucleus in the brain anticipates the build-up of our favourite part of a song as we listen, while the nucleus accumbens is triggered by the peak causing the release of endorphins. It is believed that the more we get to know a piece of music, the less fired-up our brains will be in anticipating this peak.

This is partly down to the music itself, explains Dr Michael Bonshor of the University of Sheffield who is an expert in the psychology of music.

“There are two main reasons why music may become boring and fall out of favour,” he tells The Independent. “The first reason is overexposure to the song. Experiments have demonstrated that appreciation decreases once the novelty of a piece of music has worn off, and that we often become bored with a song that has become over familiar.”

The other key factor is how complex a song is. The more there is going on in a song the more likely it is to fire off the right signals in our brains. Evidence shows the more complex the stimuli in a song the more likely a person will like it with time, while the opposite is the case for simple stimuli, says Dr Bonshor.

“According to this principle, more complex music will have greater longevity, as it will be more challenging and retain the listeners’ interest for longer, whilst simple music may be sometimes be more immediately accessible, but may lose its appeal relatively quickly.”

Dr Boshner points to the example of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

“The longstanding popularity of the song may partly be explained by its layers of harmonic, rhythmic and vocal complexity. At six minutes long, it initially took many listeners by surprise and, as a progressive rock suite, had a ground-breaking approach which did not follow the prevalent musical norms of the time.

“However, over 40 years later, it is still one of Queen’s most popular songs, has topped the charts several times, and regularly features on contemporary lists of the most influential songs in recent history. In contrast, countless ‘catchy’ songs, with a simpler structure and fewer layers of musical content - think of some of the Eurovision chart-toppers! - have often been quickly forgotten despite achieving short-term popularity. This may be because although they are immediately accessible, they are more predictable and less satisfying on many levels.”

The psychological concept that is often used to explore enjoyable experiences and music is called ‘flow’, says Dr Bonshor.

“Listening to music can be a ‘flow’ experience, which people enjoy for its own sake. It is totally absorbing, to the extent that it distracts them from everyday concerns," he says. "However, for an individual to experience ‘flow’, the activity needs to use their skills in a way that is challenging enough to be interesting. If the music is not sufficiently stimulating for the listener, they will soon lose interest, the state of ‘flow’ arising from immersion in the music will be lost. And the music will fall out of favour."

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