Why you just can't get that song out of your head

Science can explain why some songs are earworms, writes Olivier Oullier

epa06899695 Lead singer of British electronic band Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan performs during the Les Vieilles Charrues Festival in Carhaix-Plouguer, France, 19 July 2018. The music festival runs from 19 to 22 July.  EPA/HUGO MARIE ALTERNATIVE CROP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Tomorrow in Berlin, British band Depeche Mode is playing the last show of their longest ever tour. The Global Spirit tour started more than a year ago and was attended by 1.5 million people in more than 20 countries, making the top 10 of last year's biggest grossing tours.

The band’s career spans four decades and it seems the audience just can’t get enough of their music.

A few months ago, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity by Depeche Mode’s management team to study the brains of the band’s fans before and during their concert.

Like anyone who follows a band, the fans I met gave me countless reasons when asked why they like them: from lyrics resonating with their lives to being emotionally moved by the harmony of the song or hooked to a melody that would stick in their brains.

There is a significant amount of neuroscientific literature reporting how liking a song can increase activity in the reward system of our brains, shedding light on why we are so pleased when we listen to our favourite artist.

Musical preferences have also been found to be a powerful proxy to some of our personality traits. However, most of these studies lack external validity as participants self-reported genres of music.

This week a large-scale online experiment conducted on two groups with more than 20,000 people was published in Psychological Science. Using active listening and Facebook likes, Gideon Nave from the Wharton School and his colleagues showed that "reactions to unfamiliar musical excerpts predicted individual differences in personality – most notably, openness and extraversion – above and beyond demographic characteristics".

Facebook likes for musical artists were found to be good predictors of differential personalities – a fascinating result that will not remain unnoticed by music producers and most certainly inspire more work relying on social media to better understand the personality of an artist’s fan.

Speaking of personalities, Depeche Mode fans are called Devotees – in reference to their 1993 number one album Songs of Faith and Devotion – for a good reason. Their loyalty to the band is known to be as one of the strongest in the music business.

I wanted to understand if there was anything special we could find in their brains. I therefore used neurotechnology from my company to record their brain activity and other physiological measures like heartbeats, before, during and after a concert.

For bands that have successfully been around for some many years, the set list is generally a combination of their massive hits, new songs and hidden gems from their back catalogues that hardcore fans will appreciate more than most attendees.

This is also the pattern with Depeche Mode concerts. The rare songs vary from one concert to another while the rest of the set list remains pretty much the same.

Because the song order from previous concerts is easy to find online, fans generally know when the rare songs are coming but they don’t know which ones will be played.

Unexpected events in musical performances have been found to lead to increased pleasure, as well as when such surprises are followed by events that are expected, as reported last year by scientists at Georgetown University in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

During the concert, we were able to quantify some of these reactions of pleasure as we found an increase in attention and excitement when the audience was expecting the rare songs to be played, as well as when new intros to hit songs were added.

Other key moments of concerts are singalongs and when the audience claps or moves in unison with the musicians. Brain synchrony occurs when people move in unison, contributing to creating bonding between people, as shown in a study my colleagues and I published a decade ago.

When people bond, they unsurprisingly rate their experience of the social event higher. This happens too during concerts.

Finally – and it should not come as a surprise given the title of their biggest hit single – Depeche Mode’s hardcore fans seem to “enjoy the silence” more than average attendees. After the concert, when the music is over, it is possible to distinguish those who had a good experience from those who had a great one.

A study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology published in March hints at what occurs when music we like stops. Neural signatures of liking a song seem to be preserved in our brains during silence.

One could argue that we don’t need neuroscience to know what people like. Hit and tour producers have been around for decades, long before brain scans were available. But the music and entertainment industries and business models have not only changed dramatically in recent years but are still evolving.

Given the financial stakes associated with producing a costly tour for an artist, the industry is now working with behavioural and brain scientists than can contextualise and scale data collection onsite to better understand concertgoers, deliver the best experience, minimise the risks and maximise their gains.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ