I can claim with an acceptable degree of confidence that I am not the only one who thinks the quality of Taylor Swift’s albums has followed a downward trend since 2011. Whether or not my opinion is widely held, it is a fact that Swift has abandoned her original country-ballad signature to embrace some highly clichéd pop features. Funnily enough, even those who question the artistic value of her new songs can’t seem to help finding themselves listening to them on repeat.
Personally, I accepted the paradoxical existential condition of being a Swiftie and no longer knowing why. But in times like these, self-doubt can erode your ambition of becoming a cultured and sophisticated adult obsessing over Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Luckily, brain chemistry can be made accountable for our awful taste in music.
Our brains have a physiological fondness of simple and repetitive sequences: “Repetition leads to familiarity which leads to anticipation, which is satisfied by hearing the song,” says John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, about how songs can be specifically designed to target the human brain. Unsurprisingly, Mr Seabrook uses Swift’s Shake It Off as an example. “It’s like a sugar high,” he adds. “It pumps you up and just as you start coming down it gives you another hook.”
Mr Seabrook’s words can also explain why Swift’s latest songs are more likely than others to keep running through your mind forever and always. Scientists refer to such tunes as ‘Involuntary Musical Imageries’, most commonly known as ‘earworms’, ‘brainworms’, or ‘sticky music’. This phenomenon is well studied by both scientists and marketing experts.
James Kellaris, professor of Signage and Visual Marketing at university of Cincinnati, studies the affective, cognitive and behavioural influences of music on consumers in advertising and hedonic consumption. He was eventually able to identify the characteristics that can easily turn an average redundant collection of sounds into an annoyingly persistent obsession.
These characteristics include repetitive and simple structures, and incongruity between lyrics and rhythm. “Certain songs have properties that are analogous to histamines that make our brain itch,” explains Professor Kellaris, “The only way to scratch a cognitive itch is to repeat the offending melody in our minds.”
Other studies link earworm formation to memory consolidations – earworms would arise to help us recall those images and events with which we associate with the song in question. Such studies seem to exclude a direct correlation between a song’s structure and its likelihood to become an earworm. On the contrary, they relate this phenomenon to one’s personal experience.
If this were true, any tune would have the potential to become an earworm. This might be the case on an individual scale, but large-sample studies tell a different story. Vicky Williamson, who is regarded as an authority on the psychology of music, analysed the most recurring music obsessions and failed to identify any common pattern aside from popularity. It makes sense: our memories can be easily hooked to mass-culture songs, as they are a big part of the surrounding environment in which our memories are made.
In other words, Swift’s latest songs have everything it takes to trap us into a vicious cycle of listening: they are simple, repetitive, and perpetually on the radio. The more we listen to them, the more we like them – the more we like them, the more we go back to them.
Ultimately, if you too think Swift’s new music is just gorgeous and you remember it all too well, it’s probably because of what your brain just made you do. The old Taylor might be dead, but the new one knows better and is a well-oiled money-machine. Science can confirm.