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Over the hill or top of the pops?


As Aussie ex-pat and veteran British radio DJ Alan Freeman would have put it, greetings pop-pickers, and this weeks top of the shop in the United Kingdom album hit parade is Mr. Robbie Williams with Sinatra-pastiche Swings Both Ways.

Why should you care? Well, this is the 1000th number 1 album in the United Kingdom, and it’s ironic that Williams’ album could have been number 1 in any year since The Chairman of the Board had the first with the 1956 legend, Songs for Swinging Lovers!. So as much of the music press wallows in reminiscence it’s reasonable to wonder what makes certain songs timeless?

Psychologists tell us that one answer is that most people don’t like either to be bored or to be over-stimulated, because this produces an optimal level of arousal in the autonomic nervous system.

Instead, we prefer “Goldilocks music” that is neither too simple or too stimulating, but somewhere in-between. Whatever we may say when trying to impress people on late night Internet chat sites, most people don’t like experimental music that much: Australian experimental composer Arnold Schoenberg never had a number 1 album.

Nor do we like repetitive music; there is a reason why people usually only listen to trance music when they’re on drugs.

But whether a given piece of music is too simple, too complex or just right changes over time. I can demonstrate this easily. I can demonstrate this easily. I can demonstrate this easily. I can demonstrate this easily. I can demonstrate this easily. I can demonstrate this easily.

With repetition, music becomes more predictable. What at first sounds quite enticing and interesting, with repetition, quickly becomes boring and irritating. Repeated listening means that Goldilocks music that was originally midway between boring and over-stimulating quickly becomes just boring.

Also, music that was originally over-stimulating will, with repeated listening, become Goldilocks music, and we can begin to enjoy it.

This explains why fashions in pop music change so quickly: music that was originally “just right” will only a few years later sound quite simplistic. Also, it explains why fashions in classical music change more slowly: it takes a greater degree of familiarity before this more complex music begins to sound “just right”.

Don’t believe me? Back in the 1990s, Finnish music psychologist Tuomas Eerola looked at the number of weeks that each of The Beatles’ albums spent on the charts during its first run. This is, in effect, a measure of the popularity of each album at the time it was released.

Tuomas then compared this against a measure of how complex the music was. He found that The Beatles’ most simple album Please Please Me had the greatest immediate popularity. However, among the most complex albums was Abbey Road, which had a relatively short run in the chart when first released.

Look at the reputation of these albums now though. We typically regard Please Please Me as childish chart fodder and Abbey Road as a groundbreaking masterpiece. Please Please Me has turned from a Goldilocks album into something we now find too simple, whereas Abbey Road has turned into a Goldilocks album.

The End.

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