From: The Shazam Effect by Derek Thompson
Our brains are wired to prefer melodies we already know. David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, estimates that at least 90 percent of the time we spend listening to music, we seek out songs we’ve heard before.
That’s because familiar songs are easier to process, and the less effort needed to think through something—whether a song, a painting, or an idea—the more we tend to like it.
In psychology, this idea is known as fluency: when a piece of information is consumed fluently, it neatly slides into our patterns of expectation, filling us with satisfaction and confidence.
“Things that are familiar are comforting, particularly when you are feeling anxious,” Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, who studies fluency, told me.
“When you’re in a bad mood, you want to see your old friends. You want to eat comfort food. I think this maps onto a lot of media consumption. When you’re stressed out, you don’t want to put on a new movie or a challenging piece of music. You want the old and familiar.”
Perhaps one reason machines haven’t yet invaded the recording room is that listeners prefer rhythms that are subtly flawed.
A 2011 Harvard study found that music performed by robotic drummers and other machines often strikes our ears as being too precise.
“There is something perfectly imperfect about how humans play rhythms,” says Holger Hennig, the Harvard physics researcher who led the study. Hennig discovered that when experienced musicians play together, they not only make mistakes, they also build off these small variations to keep a live song from sounding pat.