How to enjoy new music
Justin Fowler

Good insights — thanks for sharing! Relatively new technology and research has helped us to see live the differences between our reception of new and familiar music, but I think there’s a lot left to be done to discover what happens in between listens of a tune. This is critical, and while we aren’t generally conscious of what our brains are doing here, we can be quite active.

I think this is because our brains keep trying to make connections, so that we join up what we’ve experienced with what we already know and love. We aren’t often aware of these connections getting made — except for the odd “a-ha!” flash of inspiration — but what we do find is that songs which have successfully started making connections in our heads sound better when we hear them again later.

I work in radio, and I’m always looking for new songs which will grow into big, popular hit songs. From what you have found, we might think that songs which fit the patterns of our expectations would always give pleasure and do well, but the biggest hits are often unique breaks from the norm, and follow-ups which sound too much like an artist’s first hit are often disappointing.

My guess would be (and I’d love to see anyone’s research which could shed light on this) that we like familiarity but we LOVE the rewards which come from solving the problems of “what is this?”, “where does it fit?” and “what does it mean?”, and the songs we grow to love the most are the those which don’t quite fit our initial expectations but do eventually find ways to connect with what we know and love.

One way to help this process along is to read the lyrics, think about what they might mean, and find out what others think too. A few years ago, I was picking tunes for a radio company which showed the effectiveness of this with the song “Wires” by Athlete. We started playing it for reasons we couldn’t explain — we just sort of liked it, and it was growing on us — but it wasn’t testing well with the audience (we asked a sample every week to tell us if they knew, liked or loved the songs we played). Then the meaning of the song dawned on us, and once we realised that it was about a premature baby, lots of imagery, thoughts and feelings connected in our heads when we heard the song, and it became like a fresh, favourite discovery. On some radio stations, we made a point of sharing this with listeners, while on others, we didn’t make a thing of it. Where people had the extra bit of context to link with the song, the test scores rocketed into Huge Hit territory, and without this, it didn’t. I’m pretty sure that the songs biggest fans were the people who worked this out for themselves, but getting hints and ideas from friends certainly doesn’t hurt.

So listening, sharing and keeping an open mind are brilliant ways to increase enjoyment of music, and I’m looking foward to hearing the tunes you want to share!