The great Top 40 programmers of the past – names like Bill Drake, Rick Sklar, Todd Storz, and others – knew something instinctually about the power of music – particularly music repetition. That's how Top 40 radio was born – super-tight rotations on that handful of powers, guaranteeing hit after hit.
I sat in many a meeting with the late Steve Rivers. He may not have been an expert in my genre – Rock and Classic Rock – but he knew the fundamentals of the why's and how's that make format radio work. When strategic conversations would wander, digress, or just lose focus, Steve had the uncanny ability to re-center the room, often intoning his mantra:
“Play the hits.”
We know people love to hear those hits. It's why even on a platform like SiriusXM where there are legions of channels to choose from, many people gravitate to the most repetitive choices – the ones that play the biggest hits.
But now, scientists are shedding light on the idea that hearing a favorite song goes beyond simple preferences – the ways in which we ask respondents to rate songs in music tests – and have much to do with how our brain functions.
Not that I'm an avid reader of Frontiers in Neuroscience, but the journal published a study abstract: “Cortical Patterns of Pleasurable Musical Chills Revealed by High-Density EEG.”
Study Find's Chris Melore dumbed the research down so that consultants, programmers, and air talent could understand it with a far more accessible headline:
It speaks to how music can help determine or even alter our moods. And Melore had me with his opening line:
“At some point or another, we all have experienced that joyful sensation when our favorite song comes on the radio. It can change your whole mood, especially when ‘that moment' in every song hits and sends chills down your spine.”
The italics in the quote are mine. And that's because the study, conducted by Thibault Chabin and his team of French researchers, suggests there's an element of surprise that comes into play as well.
It's one thing when a song is on a playlist, or as we used to call them, “party tapes.” It doesn't take too many plays before you know what's coming up next.
But as we continually hear listeners tell us in focus groups, there's is something about a “curated playlist” – i.e., one that is put together by someone else – a radio programmer and/or a personality – that triggers the ecstatic response.
And now Thibault and his researchers have brain scans – EEG – to prove the point. They measured the brain waves of 18 people who report getting those telltale “chills” from hearing a favorite song to determine exactly what happens in our noggins.
That “tingly chill” comes from electrical activity in the orbitofrontal cortex – something that most of us have in common. But these French music researchers also report there are other parts of the brain that spark when someone hears their favorite – whether it's “Vogue,” “Free Bird,” or “Rolling in the Deep.”
And as you might imagine, most of this brain activity is coming from the right temporal lobe – better known as our “right brain.”
The active ingredient in our brains is dopamine, the “feel good” hormone produced by our brains when that favorite song comes on.
But which part of the song?
That is, where's the hook?
And this is the part of the research that may discourage long-time music researchers, while bolstering the opinions of those who have always questioned how music hooks are selected.
The first finding is that most people can recognize a song in half a second. A University College London study made that determination, based on playing 750 millisecond fragments of songs.
That's the good news.
The tricky part is that those “chill producing moments” of songs actually differ by respondent, occurring in multiple parts of great songs – not just “the predicted moments” – or the hook.
Those aforementioned forefathers of Top 40 understood this – right down to the sloganeering that promised that one of these songs was always around the corner:
“And the hits just keep on comin.'”
That's not just a slogan, because the researchers learned a key factor in triggering those fireworks on the right sides of our brains is the anticipation their favorite song is just around the corner.
For time in memorial, DJs have promised over those studio lines that a requested song is “coming up next,” “just around the corner,” or the hope beyond hope response: “I'll try to get that on for you.”
As the study's authors note, as we wait for that favorite song to air, the brain actually spews out even more dopamine.
Here's the scientific explanation for a phenomenon great programmers have always understood:
“This ancestral function may lie in the period of time we spend in anticipation of the “chill-inducing” part of the music. As we wait, our brains are busy predicting the future and release dopamine. Evolutionarily speaking, being able to predict what will happen next is essential for survival.”
Not to mention, radio's survival.
Because the curated, programmed-by-someone else quality of radio is a major differentiator – an X-factor that distinguishes it from Spotify, Pandora, and other playlist services.
It also says a lot about the power of “occasion setting” – that is, teasing and promos – whether it's a song, a story, or a bit. Sometimes, the anticipation is greater than the payoff.
Bu when they both come together, it's “dopamine city.”
These days, our mood is everything. We're going through an amazingly difficult period that may not have a quick or predictable end point. As 2020 wears on, and the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down, it's those little things that can make a difference in our outlook and perspective.
Mood matters. And done right, radio has that ability to alter and uplift it, every hour of every day. That's what clock design and great programming is all about.
And it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure that out.