Not more than a couple of weeks back, at the last moments of what was a long afternoon, evening and then late-night-into-the-next-morning of live music, I overheard another person in attendance at said live show, declare something about their own evolving relationship with the music of one of the bands that had just played.
“It’s crazy how you guys [as a band], don’t even have [the album] out yet, I know the words to [that one song]…well, at least the refrain, because I’ve seen you guys play it so many times. It’s so good man and everyone loves that one.”
At first recitation of this short anecdote, the question of “Why the love of this song?” might feel painfully unsurprising, as a very plausible explanation exists right in the quote itself, with the admission of this person having had many, many prior exposures. Despite this presumption of predictability, the scenario prompts a different question for consideration: How much, based solely on the element of our own mental banks of context, are we influenced by and come to like a specific song or particular artist?
Approximately a week and a half ago, WIRED published a piece exploring the question of why writers often miss their own errors, even after many rounds of review and intense scrutinizing. Reaching the crux of the article, author Nick Stockton illuminates the meat of the reasoning behind this source of typical writer frustration:
“When we’re proof reading our own work, we know the meaning we want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. The reason we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads.
This can be something as trivial as transposing the letters in “the” to “hte,” or something as significant as omitting the core explanation of your article…
…Generalization is the hallmark of all higher-level brain functions. It’s similar to how our brains build maps of familiar places, compiling the sights, smells, and feel of a route. That mental map frees your brain up to think about other things. Sometimes this works against you, like when you accidentally drive to work on your way to a barbecue, because the route to your friend’s house includes a section of your daily commute. We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.”
Returning to the band and song scenario from above, consider these conditions:
1. The song performed is played live and contains the basic rock band formula, a full body of lyrics, and is built on a commonplace verse, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure.
2. Resulting from a combination of environmental volume, band style and song tempo, lyrics are not always delivered with enough steady articulation for someone who may not necessarily be specifically focused on them, to hear, understand and process the lyrics as a whole. In fact, many words may get lost entirely.
3. Beyond the quoted listener above, many others have never heard this specific song in a recorded framework, and thus have always experienced the song in a less consistent live setting.
Could it be possible that the mental junctures and associative concepts applicable to human (lack of ) recognition for written typos are similarly applicable to human recognition for melodic compositions? In the case of this one song performed live, it is indicated that people have taken a liking to the composition but, they are clearly not experiencing the song in the setting of an ideally balanced environment or playback (i.e. a studio recording or tamed acoustic performance).
On the one hand, if we are to say that these neurological concepts could be mutually applied, then the conclusive points drawn lead to an even more intriguing conflict of neurological interest:
“…we don’t see our own typos is because what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads...”
Listening to a band play a song in front of you live, obviously removes the relevance of a screen to be read or viewed. However, take the second portion of the principle in bold and place it by the next part of Stockon’s conclusion and somewhat of a conflict in determination of preference seems to arise.
“…We can become blind to details because our brain is operating on instinct. By the time you proof read your own work, your brain already knows the destination.”
Perhaps on the first (few) listens, audience members would have an easier time defining whether they have a “positive versus negative” aural experience with a song that can leave words or parts unheard. All the same, if we are to stick with the idea that they have come to know a song due mostly to repeated exposure, is their liking thereof the result of a bias produced by a tag-team combination of mental self-adjustment (version in their heads) and familiarity-fueled expectation (already knowing the song’s “destination”)? If a musical performance contains errors, like a paper contains typos, one would be likely to dismiss it but perhaps, there comes a threshold where even the minds of those outside a work will take on a level of generalization comparable to that of content creators themselves.
That is to say: is the paring of frequent listens, alongside the human mind’s capacity for structural auto-fill, directly affecting their perception of something as either being good, bad or feeling incomplete? (e.g. getting hooked on a song no matter what and not feeling negative emotions because some lyrics are less comprehensible played live, even though you can draw the conclusion that lyrics should be heard.)
Is this premise why we can get positively hooked on a song; even if every time we’ve heard it, we’ve never been in a situation where we can fully absorb the finished product?