A single song can amplify our current mood or transport us to an entirely new realm of feeling. Wallowing in self-pity on your bedroom floor? Deepen your blues with some blues. Pulling yourself out of your misery to jump-start a night on the town? Bump top-40 pop hits. Dancing your troubles away? Loop trippy EDM tracks ‘til dawn.
The field of music psychology offers some insights into the feelings evoked by certain pieces of music, but it also recognizes that these feelings cannot always be tucked into neat boxes. “Our emotional experience is often quite rich and complex and diverse, and it changes from moment to moment,” Hauke Egermann, a professor at the University of York Department of Music and the director of the York Music Psychology Group, tells WebMD. “It’s not [so] easy and simple to say, ‘Well, this is a happy song, this is a sad song.’ Often the truth is somewhere in between, or it’s happy and sad at the same time.”
Each year, the Recording Academy sorts songs into categories and awards Grammys to the “best” of the bunch. A Grammy-worthy song may showcase the singer’s rich vocals, break ground with avant-garde production, or master that winning four-chord progression. But ahead of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards on April 3, Egermann explores why five of this year’s nominees might strike an emotional chord.
"Kiss Me More" by Doja Cat ft. SZA (Song of the Year)
Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” opens with a guitar riff that immediately sets the listener’s mood by creating a “calm atmosphere,” according to Egermann. “It triggers our ability to resonate with these very basic expressions in music,” he says of the repetitive riff, which runs through the entire song. “It’s like you empathize with the [artist]. It takes you there.”
The song emulates the catchy, bubblegum-pop chorus of another Grammy-nominated hit, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” but modernizes it with assertive rap verses. “What’s interesting about this piece is that the rap is a bit more aggressive, and it sort of creates a bit of a contrast and a bit of a tension,” Egermann says. “It’s an interesting stylistic mixture.”
"Genesis" by Deftones (Best Metal Performance)
Deftones’ “Genesis” begins with slow synths that shift into a heavier, darker rock sound with scream-adjacent vocals. “These are [elements] that are associated with expressions of negative emotion,” Egermann says. “If you hear someone on the street that makes sounds that are really rough and dissonant and dark and loud, you might think they’re in pain or that they’re [screaming] in anger.”
When it comes to metal music like “Genesis,” one listener’s torment is another listener’s therapy. “We have the ability to take things which would be negative, and turn them into positive things by interpreting it as art,” Egermann says. “It’s a process of distancing or dissociation. We step back, and then we can look at that [emotion] from the outside as opposed to feeling it directly … There’s the idea of catharsis, that you go through a sort of tragedy [through the music] and that helps you to overcome your own tragedy, in a way.”
"All Eyes on Me" by Bo Burnham (Best Song Written for Visual Media)
Released as part of his lockdown comedy special “Inside,” Bo Burnham’s “All Eyes on Me” follows the comedian’s standard formula of delivering social commentary and self-reflection through contrived — and even corny — pop elements. The song harnesses the power of the Autotune, repetitive hooks, and audience commands of Y2K hip-hop-tinged pop, slowed down and looped almost to the point of hypnosis.
“It’s very melodic, it’s very repetitive, it creates a sort of earworm,” Egermann says. “If there are some musical traits that people are more likely to remember, they’re incorporated here. The structure is not too complex, but it’s also not too simple — it’s just right, somewhere in between. You can sing along because it’s this clearly formulated melody. It pulls you in.”
"Family Ties" by Baby Keem ft. Kendrick Lamar (Best Rap Performance)
Baby Keem’s “Family Ties” starts with a visceral beat that sounds a bit like a mashup of a wrestling entrance theme and a wolf howling at the moon. “It stimulates a bodily, direct response,” Egermann says. “There’s this sort of low subbase, which directly resonates in us … not even on an abstract level; it’s on a bodily level. If you stand in front of your speakers, your body will [literally] resonate with that. So it gets you right away.”
Rap is built on repetitive patterns of rhyme and rhythm, but it’s the unpredictability of the flow that creates a sort of “flow state” in the listener. “On a syntactic level, it’s very complex,” Egermann says of “Family Ties.” “Through rhyme and repetition, you build up expectations, which are then violated once in a while. This creates tension and makes things aesthetically interesting.”
"MOVEMENT 11'" by Jon Batiste (Best Contemporary Classical Composition)
Jon Batiste is the king of the Grammys this year with 11 nominations, covering R&B, the broad-spectrum “American Roots” genre, the jazz soundtrack of Pixar’s “Soul,” and beyond. His song “MOVEMENT 11’” is also rooted in jazz, despite its classification as a contemporary classical composition.
“It’s a very jazzy piano [performance], and that plays very much with our expectations as well,” Egermann says. “During a jazz performance, you would have an original motive that would be presented, and then it will repeat, but it will be varied and worked on. The variations will confirm your expectations and violate your expectations.”
A cliche-ridden pop song or rom-com may comfort us with its predictability, but a jazz piece excites us by zigzagging like a thriller. “Playing with expectations can create tension, surprise, relief, satisfaction, [and] anticipation,” Egermann says.
So what’s the “golden ratio” that deems all of these stylistically diverse songs worthy of a golden gramophone? “Scientists have been trying to find this formula for a hit song for many years, and it’s not that easy,” Egermann says.
Hit songs, like human emotions, can’t always be distilled into categories. “A lot of the pop music today is not in these boxes it used to be in maybe thirty years ago,” Egermann says. “Now everything’s sort of fused together, mixed together. I think this is what makes music interesting. It is maybe also what the judges thought was particularly valuable here.”
Popular music is notoriously formulaic, but judging by this year’s Grammy nominees, the “best” of it follows a formula only to disrupt it. Repetition and expectation may catch the ear, but the element of surprise is what keeps people listening.