Have you never wondered why popular songs are so insatiably addictive? One is familiar with the feeling: A favorite popular song comes on the radio, and when it is over, you cannot wait to hear it again. This is akin to a habitual cigarette smoker who inordinately craves their next nicotine fix or risks feeling as if they might die without it. Although music, unlike cigarettes or street drugs, is not a commodity one physically possesses in hand, the overall impact, both psychological and physical, is equally powerful, if not exponentially more so.
THROUGH REPETITION COMES ADDICTION
Might there be some supernatural component to this habit forming potential-to what is owed one’s inability to resist a particular pop song again and again, even if it seems to possess no redeeming artistic value? Well, the short answer is no, there is nothing supernatural about this seemingly inexplicable phenomenon. But, it is scientific, based on a tried and true formula those in the music industry exploit time and again-REPETITION! Most assume a pop song receives maximum exposure because it is popular. Rather, the opposite is true-a pop song becomes popular merely because it receives maximum exposure. We live in a world of opposites and duality flipped in the mirror’s image. Television, and radio, are the tools of the media sorcerers to manipulate human perception and consciousness into whatever shape desired. Pop music is a systematic mind weapon.
Just as an aside-though this may sound dubious to some-the overall quality of today’s pop music does not measure up to that of previous decades. In fact, one could claim that the quality of pop music heard today on America’s airwaves has deteriorated considerably-to the point of resembling nothing even remotely musical. But, the public at large may lack perspective. Music is an integral part of radio programming precisely because it stimulates advertising which in turn increases commerce-the sale of marketable commodities and material goods. The same principles used to popularize one three minute pop song in bygone era’s still apply today. And, when it comes to popular music, objective musical merit and mass popularity are mutually exclusive. The crux of the principle is this: the popularity of any pop song is predicated on how often it is played. In modern media parlance, this is called ‘rotation’. Although it isn’t readily mentioned by industry insiders, the practice of manipulating the pop charts is quite common. Record companies allot millions to get their artists prime rotation spots in all major markets, and for good reason. Prime advertising placement and maximum rotation, or lack thereof, can make or break a potential hit song. But, the artists themselves, are merely being used to sell products. Creating art for art’s sake is hardly a consideration in terms of the larger picture of global commerce.
THEODORE ADORNO-MAD SCIENTIST of POP
The man responsible for the concept of radio programming and radio programming rotation was named Theodore Adorno. Adorno was a product of the Frankfurt school of academic studies, a truly ground breaking scientist who met with some measure of notoriety early in his career experimenting with abstract music theory, studying the effects of certain musical forms on human psychological responses and brain wave activity. In essence, Adorno keenly observed the theories derived from Freud and Jung could be accurately applied to the arena of mass popular music. Through meticulous research, Adorno was able to observe the effects of music on the human subconscious and conscious mind.
GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO
Early on, the newly developed technology of radio served as a sociological and psychological experimental tool. Orson Welles infamous ‘alien invasion’ broadcast from the Mercury theater during the early stages of the American depression was a prime example of this. Elite banking families owning and operating all major media, were curious to observe what effects, whether detrimental or positive, certain types of programming had on the public mind. During the heyday of radio in the 1930’s, Adorno was commissioned by the Rockefeller banking dynasty to perform a study on the role popular broadcast music had on determining programming popularity. His findings, even today, are found to be quite extraordinary. First, Adorno found the relationship between quality of programming and public popularity were quite incidental. Instead, he found the popularity of a particular musical selection is not derived from objective judgement of overall artistic merit, bur rather from how often is is presented within the context of radio formatting and programming. Common to the most popular songs, he found, were identifiable elements as distinguished from those found to be less popular. He was able to determine that the more often a key song phrase, or ‘hook’ was repeated, accompanied by a simple and easily remembered elementary word phrase, contributed to a greater degree of popularity than those selections placing too many demands on the public ear. The simpler and more memorable, and perhaps more pleasurably primitive a piece of music, the more popular it became. Adorno also identified elements common and unique to the structure of popular song selections, in that they contained two key musical attributes. One of these Adorno termed ‘melodic shapes’; the unique way that a key phrase of music ascends and descends quickly up and down the musical scale, in essence forming a perfect ‘audio sound circle’ in the listeners mind. Another common concept Adorno identified was the consistent uniformity of chord interval or note structure, interrupted by sudden or unexpected chord changes at key points within the popular arrangement. In other words, when the repetitiveness of certain notes in the beginning verses is surprisingly broken up by a sudden and shimmering chord alteration in the chorus, or key hook, the public popularity of a song was observed to increase exponentially. In addition, Adorno found that these unique musical attributes, when utilized judiciously and to maximum effectiveness, had a profound effect on the human mind. He discovered that when these two key elements are paired within any popular musical arrangement, the pleasure centers of the brain were more likely to be stimulated, causing the listener to crave hearing the song again, over and over, regardless of objective artistic merit.
This curious transition of the human mind after repeated exposure to popular pieces of music was corroborated in the 1960’s by Robert Zojonc. Zojonc found through experimentation that the popularity of music and the frequency with which it is played are inextricably related. In other words, the more times one hears a piece of music containing the right combination of previously mentioned ingredients, the more likely the pleasure centers of the brain are positively activated. One can only imagine how this could be applied to modern advertising. As long as the public could be manipulated to make the requisite emotional investment in the musical jingle chosen to accompany the add copy, the more likely they were to buy the product being sold. Taking it further, Zojonc found the same pleasure principles applied to other art forms; photographs, paintings, even sculpture. Zojonc also discovered that the same pleasure regions of the human brain stimulated by repeated exposure to popular music are identical to those activated by repeated drug abuse. Discomforting as these findings may be, is it any wonder bad music continues to play such a prominent role in American culture? It may also help to explain as to why Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, composers of classical antiquity, continue to languish in relative obscurity in comparison to the massive success enjoyed by acts such as Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas and Jay Z.
In the words of Theodore Adorno himself, art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.
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