It’s a question people and musicians ask themselves a lot. Sometimes it seems that the progression of musical styles is drying up and like trying to imagine a colour that doesn’t exist, it’s pretty impossible to just pluck a new genre out of your head. But the fact is that the possible combinations of notes within the western scale alone is essentially limitless. Take a look at this video from Vsauce, which beautifully breaks down the facts and figures to demonstrate the incomprehensibly large potential for new music and shows that despite the possibilities, much of our music actually sounds the same.
So what’s holding us back?
When the possibilities are so vast, why do we have so many songs that are based around the same four chords and have near identical melodies?
You could apply the theory of Mere Exposure, sometimes referred to as the familiarity principle. This was developed by social psychologist Robert Zajonc, who found that the more we are exposed to something, the more we like it. He tested this by showing participants a series of Chinese symbols (some made-up, some real), with a selection being shown several times in the sequence. He then asked participants whether they thought the symbols meant something positive or negative and found that those that were seen more often, were looked upon much more favourably.
Now I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t matter how many times you hear Justin Bieber, you’re never going to like it. Well fortunately you’re not wrong there. Zajonc’s experiments only went so far as to subtly expose you to the symbol, not leave you in a room plastered with the same Chinese character until you could still see it when you closed your eyes at night. This is exposure, not brain washing. But it could explain, why we tend to stick to similar chord progressions and scales.
How many times have you listened to a new band or genre and not been that keen on it, but have found yourself enjoying it at a later date? This supports the Mere Exposure theory, that you had to become familiar with the new sound before you could think of it positively. Whereas if a song sounds similar to something you’ve already been exposed to, you’re already primed to like it. So how do we break out of the cycle of the four chord wonder, as demonstrated here by Axis of Awesome?
One possibility to break the spell, could be to force ourselves to get used to a new chord progression or perhaps use a new modal scale we’re not used to. After adequate exposure, we could find ourselves enjoying it and who knows, we may even end up creating a new style of music. It also follows that people might not like it at first, but with enough time and exposure, they might come around!
If you want to try this, or perhaps you already have…post a link to your new experimental music and let us have a listen. Or if you have your own theory about why we favour songs that sound similar, post a comment below.