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Neuroscience has a part in why you're playing Taylor Swift's songs on repeat

Taylor Swift literally has music down to a science

Sarah Anderson

Chemistry

Northwestern University

Fifty thousand-seat concerts that sell out in minutes. Crowds gathered outside her apartment building, hoping to catch a glimpse as she exits. Pandemonium whenever she releases new music. 

It may be tempting to dismiss Taylor Swift’s popularity as obsession or fandom, but there’s no denying that she will go down in history as one of the greatest musicians of our time. Her earlier work has produced so many hit radio singles that it could have its own station, while her recent album releases were widely celebrated as one of 2020's few welcome surprises. Some may even say she has music down to a science.

And if you can’t stop listening to Taylor Swift’s songs, science may be to blame.

Scientists have studied the elements that make music, well, good, and Swift's discography ticks all the boxes. For instance, researchers have identified the qualities of catchy songs, which include distinct “melodic turning points” between different sections of the song, such as the verse, chorus, and bridge. In Swift’s music, these turning points are often achieved by using a one-note melody in one section of the song. A great example is her early hit “Our Song,” the verse melody of which largely consists of a single note. As the BBC writes of Taylor Swift’s one-note verse songs, “When the chorus soars up the musical scale, it’s like a rush of energy.” Anyone who has ever belted out “Our song is a slamming screen DOOOOR” knows exactly what they’re talking about.

Researchers have also used brain imaging techniques to try to better understand how our brains respond to certain music. In one study, neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure activity in different regions of the brain as participants listened to unfamiliar music. When the participant liked the song, their brain scan showed interactions between the brain's reward system and structures involved in analysis and memory. This study suggests that our brains naturally search new songs for recognizable features that allow us to anticipate what's next. Based on this finding, researchers propose that the pleasure we derive from music is closely tied to the process of making predictions, and having them confirmed or violated in exciting ways

The emotional high people experience from forming and testing predictions about music is likely a factor in the success of Taylor Swift's songs. Swift has mastered the art of crafting a song to set up, and then play with, the listener's expectations. As the songwriting experts of Switched On Pop explain, “What Taylor’s great at is establishing a pattern, and then twisting it, and tweaking it, and surprising you with some variation.” As an example, they point to the key change in “Love Story,” which sent chills down my spine both when I listened to the new re-recorded version in February and when I first heard the song back in 2008.

While scientists can map your brain activity while you listen to music, there are also a lot of external factors — including individual circumstances and global events — that influence your personal music taste. It’s critical to consider this larger context when discussing folklore and evermore, Taylor Swift’s “sister albums” that were released in July and December of 2020, respectively. Some critics say that folklore marks the transition to Swift's "late period," the phase of an artist's career in which their work become more experimental. These albums generally lack the catchy musical elements identified by scientists, and several of the songs use strange, disorganized structures, making it difficult for the listener to predict what will come next. Additionally, rather than sticking to her customary autobiographical subject matter, these albums tell the stories of fictional characters.

And yet, despite all the ways that folklore and evermore depart from Swift's earlier body of work, they were still massively popular, receiving both high praise from fans and critical acclaim — folklore won this year's Grammy Award for "Album of the Year." If there is a scientific explanation for the albums' positive reception, it likely has more to do with what’s happening in the world than specific melodic devices.

Psychology’s “transportation theory” describes the sensation of becoming immersed in a story to the point that one’s current reality is suspended. Transportation into a story has been found to provide a form of escape during times of crisis or stress. It makes sense, then, that songs that favor narratives so compelling that they inspired pitches for movies over tried-and-true hitmaking musical elements would be so readily embraced in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although folklore and evermore may not have lit up your brain's pleasure centers initially, they probably do after playing them on repeat. Another brain imaging study found that the listener's familiarity with a piece of music is a more powerful indicator of activation of the brain's reward system than how much they claim to enjoy it. As "Shake It Off" and "Blank Space" are inevitably familiar to anyone who's ever gone grocery shopping or ridden in an Uber, even non-Swifties likely have a neurological pleasure response to her music. Her omnipresence is just another way that Taylor Swift has science on her side. 

Even as Taylor Swift’s music has evolved, she continues to include the unique songwriting elements that she has relied on throughout her career to place her personal signature on her songs. One of these is a distinct descending melody, so ubiquitous in her catalog that it's earned the moniker "the T-drop." 

Another classic Swift move is to repeat the opening lines of a song at the end. As for whether these elements are proven to be the makings of good music, we don’t yet have any scientific studies to tell us. But I’d argue that her success is compelling evidence of its own. Fifty thousand-seat concerts that sell out in minutes. Crowds gathered outside her apartment building, hoping to catch a glimpse as she exits. Pandemonium whenever she releases new music. 

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Rebecca Lea Morris

Mathematics

Freelance

I hadn’t listened to very much of Taylor’s music in the past but since I read your article I’ve had her songs on repeat on Spotify! I was intrigued by the hypothesis that we find music pleasurable because we expect certain things to happen and these expectations are either confirmed or disconfirmed in interesting ways. As a non-scientist, it seems plausible to think that something similar happens with other forms of art as well, e.g. something that makes a  novel enjoyable is that it sets up our expectations and some of them are confirmed (the mystery is solved and the murderer brought to  justice) while others are violated (the murderer wasn’t who we were led to think it was) in a satisfying way.  So I was wondering whether  scientists think we derive pleasure from other forms of art similar to the way they think we derive pleasure from music or whether they think something different might be going on in different domains? 

Sarah Anderson responds:

I'm so glad I've turned you on to Taylor Swift; her music has really been such a gift to me. And that is a great question, I am not sure but it seems likely and would be really interesting to look into!

Luyi Cheng

Molecular Biology and Structural Biology

Northwestern University

I liked how you referenced a couple different studies to relate to Taylor’s music — it was fun listening to the songs you mentioned to look for examples of each study’s concepts, like the one-note melody or the key change. The brain imaging study you mentioned towards the end, about how we derive pleasure from songs we’re familiar with, is interesting. I’m reminded of how I get a rush of happiness whenever I randomly hear a song I really liked as a teenager after completely forgetting about it for years. I wonder how and when that type of familiarity can shift towards getting over and feeling sick of a song from hearing it so much?  Because I feel like that is a common experience also!

I think science-y pop culture pieces are super fun and I loved reading the tidbits of your personal experiences and fondness for Taylor’s music. Now I’m going to be thinking about all of this while going through my Spotify playlists!