Why do we love the songs that we love?

February 9, 2010

I love the movie Zero Effect. I’d recommend it to you, but I’m not sure you’d like it. It’s not the best movie out there, but something about it just speaks to me.  It’s my favourite example of how my regard for something has both a component that is a recognition of technical proficiency (how good something is—in the case of Zero Effect, Jake Kasdan‘s debut feature film, decent but not amazing) and a component that’s just, well, how much I like it.

I thought of this film recently as I got sucked into the exercise of creating  a list of my hypothetical personal top 20 songs (I say ‘hypothetical’ because  I don’t know how many will end up in the list. I’m not a listmaker by nature; I’m always impressed by the singlemindedness of someone like John Peel, who can say “This is my favourite song ever.“) Collating the songs I loved turned out to be an interesting exercise because of, not to be overly solipsistic,  what it says about myself. I’m incredibly lyrics-focused (if you’re reading this, that presumably comes as no surprise) but I was also struck by how all of the songs engendered such a strong emotional response from me.

With an essentially infinite number of songs out there, what distinguishes the ones we love from those that we merely like? I suspect that, for most of us, it’s not going to be the technical proficiency. It’s going to be the songs that just speak to us, that resonate with us emotionally. Since we all have different personalities and experiences, we’re necessarily going to have highly idiosyncratic and individualized response to music.

If emotional resonance is a significant factor in how we feel about a given piece of music, then how we get exposed to new music is likely to affect how much we like it. Think about the music in these situations:

  • something you hear on the PA in a store
  • a new song that comes up on your Pandora station
  • an artist you check out based on a positive review
  • an album recommended by a trusted friend
  • a mix CD made for you by a new lover

It’s pretty easy to surmise that the latter few situations will give the music in question a big boost on the emotional resonance front.

What do you think? Why are your favourite songs your favourite songs?

MP3: The Undertones – Teenage Kicks [buy]


  1. I’m fascinated by the fact that the circumstances in which we first hear a song would be a contributing factor into whether or not we like it. It makes perfect sense, but it had never even crossed my mind. Granted, I’m also not sure I’ve ever given much thought about the whole “why” in the first place.

    It’s funny that you discovered you’re focused on lyrics when it comes to you favorites (and possibly with all of music in general) because lyrics are almost an afterthought with me. I mean, I enjoy being able to sing along but the language hardly matters. They could be spouting gibberish for all I care.

    My usual canned response to the “favorite song” question is “Heartbeats” by The Knife (although a person crazy enough to ask that question usually doesn’t know who The Knife is). I’m not quite sure why I like it so much. There’s something about the instruments and flow that makes me want to listen to it constantly with the volume cranked to 11. I’ve done that many many times and it still hasn’t gotten old.

    • The lyrics-music duality is interesting. You’re not the only person I know who says that they don’t really notice or care about lyrics. Another friend of mine was talking about how he can’t be trusted to make a mixtape for his (now-) wife because he would put songs on it that are wildly inappropriate, lyrically speaking.

  2. “Heartbeats” is a good choice. I love it because I heard the quiet José González version first, then the big, powerful original. A great song can work on many levels—lo-fi Swedish adult contemporary, demonic Swedish synth-pop, or any genre. A lot of my favorite songs are like that.

    It’s tough to say what makes a song a favorite, though for me it’s usually a tune I hear first alone, in a distraction-free environment—taking a long walk w/ headphones, or staying up way too late on a weeknight for no reason.

    Also, Zero Effect = best movie ever. Kim Dickens has a role in Treme, David Simon’s (The Wire) upcoming HBO series about musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans. Can’t wait.

    • Way to undermine my point that my love of Zero Effect is idiosyncratic, Nick. 🙂

      And yes, “Heartbeats” is an excellent choice; I love the Electric Laser People cover of it too.

  3. Re: lyrics, I’m more like Justin—melody, harmony, and texture, in that order, are what my ears go to first. Truly horrible lyrics, however, can ruin a good song (“Such Great Heights”) or even a good band (Interpol). And great lyrics can make a good song better, for sure. But the music needs to be interesting—if it’s just poetry over chord changes, I’ll lose interest.

  4. I have a million reasons why a favorite song is a favorite for me. Normally a favorite album comes from a trusted friend recommendation. Then it gets narrowed down to favorite songs off the albums that I end up deciding on.
    Songs that I put on the album and can’t wait to hear (or sometimes even play them twice on a listen through)

    We all spend a lot of time doing other things while music is playing, so a lot becomes subliminal. You have your headphones on at work or you’re driving. You’re doing something you should be focusing on. Yet I rarely ever am.

    I am focusing on the music. But never lyrics first (except for Jens Lekman) I love the overall sound, crappy, raw, or Steely Dan polished. It can work on any level. French Kicks – Swimming? Made me buy a drum kit even though I can’t play for shit but I loved the rough sound of the drums and said “hey, I can do that”

    I have not even come close to finding a reason why I love the songs. I just do. Something in my body and mind just says ‘yes’ when it clicks. Now to put on ‘Fake Empire’.

  5. […] posts to get you started: Lady Gaga vs other artists: a graph; Audio fidelity is overrated; Why do we love the songs we love?; What will music fans pay […]

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