Weiser-Schlesinger: There’s a reason why you get hooked on a song

There’s a well-known phenomenon in the science of music that helps explain why so many people blindly listen to, and enjoy, overplayed radio pop music. A 2011 study by researcher Carlos Silva Pereira, using brain imaging technology, found that repeated exposure to music can “increase the affective responses to these melodies.”

In layman’s terms, the study determined that hearing a song more often increases the likelihood that we’ll like what we’re hearing. Mike Rugnetta, the host of the PBS web series “Idea Channel,” equates it to Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon where a prisoner becomes so accustomed to their captor’s abuse that they actually begin to warm up to them.

That’s where “guilty pleasure” songs come from too — songs that we’re overexposed to and actually begin to feel positively about. You might’ve hated that inescapable new Zayn single a couple of weeks ago, but now that you’ve heard it enough you may enjoy it more. And you’d hardly be alone.

I’ve always said, indie music isn’t as far off from pop music as we think. So naturally, this phenomenon applies to that section of the music spectrum as well.

French electronic one-man-band M83 released its first album in five years earlier this month. Titled “Junk,” the album was noted for its departure from the band’s style on previous albums.

M83’s 2011 album and breakthrough project, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” was what put the band on the map in the larger world of music, and fans became familiar with its dreamy, synth-heavy pop sounds. The new album made waves from its contrast to that sound, though, as the band transitioned to a new, dance-friendlier vibe on their new record.

My first listen to “Junk” felt lacking, even though I was a fan of the lead single “Do It, Try It.” The album felt completely in-cohesive, with meaningless randomness acting as its overlying theme.

That’s not a good thing.

M83 is still some distance from the realm of radio pop, but when it comes to musical substance, “Junk” didn’t seem very far away from it.

Until I listened to it again, that is.

Like any other catchy pop hook, at some point on my third or fourth listen “Junk” turned into something my brain still wanted to hate, but my ears grew to love. As a music listener, the feeling when an album finally clicks for you is one of the best senses of musical salvation out there.

There’s something more rewarding, as a dedicated music listener, for achieving an acquired taste for something than, say, an instant positive reaction to it. Those groundbreaking moments are the ones that shape our musical identities, and those albums are the ones we name when someone asks, “What kind of music do you listen to?”

I hardly think “Junk” will ever become one of my personality-defining albums. I still have too many problems with the album’s flow to I love it. But my process of growing to like the album, warts and all, is proof of how influential “musical Stockholm syndrome” is in our lives as music fans. Whether you pledge your allegiance to Lana Del Rey or endlessly obsess over every new project by any member of OFWGKTA, we all volunteer ourselves to musical imprisonment in order to discover the music we really love.

Not everyone likes every song they listen to the first time. That’s what the repeat button’s for.

Brett Weiser-Schlesinger is a sophomore newspaper and online journalism major. His column appears weekly in Pulp. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @brettws.


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