You don’t need science to tell you why you like a song

How scientistic — not scientific — language reinforces existing cultural hierarchies


You don’t need science to tell you why you like a song

How scientistic — not scientific — language reinforces existing cultural hierarchies

You don’t need science to tell you why you like a song

How scientistic — not scientific — language reinforces existing cultural hierarchies

Last year, neuroscientist Jacob Jolij published a list of “The 10 most uplifting songs ever,” and media outlets enthusiastically echoed his findings. In an astonishing coincidence, all 10 songs were recorded between 1966 and 1986. Selecting from over a millennium of notated music, somehow the “10 most [insert adjective here]” songs happen to be part of the regular rotation on any classic rock station in the English-speaking world. One could argue that Jolij just proved how these particular songs earned their warhorse status, but as a musicologist, I’m here to point out that such a conclusion gets the causality backwards.

Jolij’s formula “takes the number of positive lyrical elements in a song, and divides that by how much a song deviates from 150 bpm and from the major key”— or, as he expresses it on his site:

Rating = 60 + (0.00165 * BPM – 120)^2 + (4.376 * Major) + 0.78 * nChords – (Major * nChords)

The formula is not scientific but scientistic — having the appearance of science but treating scientific method like a cargo cult. Though the phrase “positive lyrical elements” sounds concrete, the concept is highly subjective. Also, it’s not just musicologically pedantic to point out that No. 9 on his list, “I Will Survive” (attributed to Gloria Gaynor but written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris), is mostly in a minor key. In fact, it’s the momentary shift to major harmonies on the line “As long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive” that sets those lyrics apart and highlights the tension between pain and hope that makes the song so, well, uplifting.

I’m basing this analysis on real music theory, which examines context and factors that aren’t easily quantified and fed into a formula. Jolij admits on his website that “basically, what you need are song features that you can express in numbers,” but ignoring the many factors that cannot be expressed in numbers creates a huge selection bias. This bias is compounded by the fact that Jolji’s research was commissioned by a technology company, Alba, using its marketing data.

Scientistic approaches to music are nothing new. With Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday coming up on Jan. 27, you can expect to see a slew of articles touting “the Mozart effect” and other ways in which the composer’s music is purported to have observable benefits. I have debunked a few of these articles on my blog, Not Another Music History Cliché, but here is a list of 15 more — they just keep coming. Even though these studies examine a different style of music, they’re doing the same thing as Jolij: using the language of science to “prove” that music has applicable uses. That is, they’re making a case for music in a neoliberal society.

One consequence of neoliberalism is that everything must be seen to serve a purpose to justify the use of resources. When everything’s societal value is determined solely by “the market,” then anything that doesn’t sell well must be repackaged as something that already sells well in order to survive. Art for art’s sake seems frivolous, especially in a culture dominated by the Protestant Work Ethic — but if aesthetic experiences can be shown to improve the bottom line somehow, they become acceptable. It’s not enough to say that some people find some music motivating, or relaxing, or comforting; the music must be dissected to find exactly what makes it so, so that those components can be isolated, harnessed, and put to work. This kind of utilitarianism disregards context and cannot accommodate ambiguity.

When everything’s societal value is determined solely by “the market,” then anything that doesn’t sell well must be repackaged.

But music thrives on ambiguity. Just as poems can hinge on a single word with multiple meanings, sometimes a single chord can have multiple functions. On his blog, composer Jon Brantingham elegantly explains the role of “pivot chords,” chords that act like a hinge between two different keys because they are common to both. We constantly interpret and reinterpret sound based on what we hear, and one of the goals of music theory is to explain how the notes support the many different layers of meaning we assign them. Often this meaning is informed by factors outside of the music itself; one aim of musicology is to demonstrate how history has shaped the music that we hear.

Scientistic approaches to music that ignore the relevance of cultural context ultimately de-legitimate themselves. Being mindful of context allows us to spot biases, including the selection bias that produced a list of the “10 most [anything] songs ever” that all come from an era and style popular among current consumers. These studies tend not to reveal anything new but instead reinforce existing cultural values.

The same is true of the Mozart Effect and its legacy. Not only do we refer to Mozart’s music as “classical,” denoting a style of art music that often uses acoustic instruments and emphasizes formal structure — Mozart is considered to live in the “Classical” era, roughly coinciding with the European Enlightenment. Most musicologists today avoid the “Baroque-Classical-Romantic” style period breakdown (because it imposes order at the expense of nuance), but these labels still affect an audience’s expectations of classical music. “Classical” connotes clarity, organization, and perfection, traits often associated with Mozart. It’s not surprising that scientific studies involving Mozart’s music would seek confirmation of those qualities.

Despite classical music’s cultural cachet, many orchestras and opera companies struggle to stay commercially viable. Don’t let reports about Mozart outselling Beyoncé fool you — the claim is based on number of CDs sold, counting each disc in the 200-disc set separately. The fact that so many classical music media outlets shared this article reveals how desperate they are to prove classical music’s economic relevance. And so, we also see them promote every “scientific study” that “proves” that classical music is intrinsically superior, a cliché parodied by the satire site Submediant. Because if science can show that classical music offers benefits that no other music can replicate, it has justified its continued existence in a neoliberal society.

So, what can we say about Jolij’s study affirming the cultural value of “dad rock”? I suspect the study itself was shaped by selection bias, but the fact that media outlets were keen to promote his findings might indicate some insecurity about the relevance of music from the 1960s-1980s as baby boomers age. Yes, there are younger fans out there, but there’s also a lot of new music in the marketplace. It’s no coincidence that “classic” rock is receiving the same treatment as “classical” music. Our society constantly interrogates art, restricting its access to limited resources until it can prove its value, rather than embracing the diversity of art as the variety of human experience.

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Linda Shaver-Gleason holds a PhD in musicology from UCSB.