Play song, start over, listen and repeat: There are some songs you can listen to over and over again. But why?
There’s no definitive answer, but we all know that some music makes us feel specific feelings or elicits certain memories that transport us back in time. And sometimes, a song is just plain catchy.
Music experts broke down the many ways certain songs affect us ― and gave these explanations for why we keep playing them again and again:
The song is part of your identity.
One of the main reasons certain songs resonate with us is the way we connect them with a part of ourselves.
“Music is the way that we create our personal identity,” said Kenneth Aigen, director of the music therapy program at New York University. “It’s part of our identity construction. Some people say you are what you eat. In a lot of ways, you are what you play or you are what you listen to.”
Aigen explained that a song’s lyrics, beats and other characteristics can embody different feelings and attitudes that enhance our sense of identity.
“Each time we re-experience our favorite music, we’re sort of reinforcing our sense of who we are, where we belong, what we value,” he said.
Pablo Ortiz, professor of music composition at the University of California, Davis, also noted that certain songs can connect us to a time in our past because they carry a certain sentiment.
“Whenever you listen to a song that you used to listen to when you were 15, for instance, the feeling of that period in your life comes back intact,” he said. “The sound is abstract enough to go directly to the part of your brain that governs the feeling.”
“Some people say you are what you eat. In a lot of ways, you are what you play or you are what you listen to.”
The song is built to make you play it on repeat.
This time of year, you might hear the same four or five pop songs on the radio on repeat. In recent years, these radio favorites have included OMI’s “Cheerleader,” last year’s “Despacito” from Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (both the original and the remix with Justin Bieber) and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
Laura Taylor, a composer and sound designer who has worked on radio commercials as well as music for slot machines and video games, offered insight into how some songs are intentionally designed to make you play them more and more.
“From a technical standpoint as an engineer and as someone who’s done recording, one of the tricks that we might use is during the verses of the song, we keep the instrumentations kind of sparse, and in respect to the stereo field, we keep it a little more narrow,” Taylor said.
“When we get to the chorus, the sing-along part, there’s more instrumentation. There’s a wall of guitars or a wall of keyboards and we really fill that out. We also might make it just a little bit louder in the chorus,” she explained.
Taylor defined a catchy song as one with “a simple melody that’s easy to follow and easy to sing, even if you can’t sing.” She said Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair” is one of her favorite songs of summer and that its huge popularity made sense because of its repetition and Blige’s other defining qualities.
“You have Mary, who can just flat-out sing,” Taylor said. “Her singing infused with her personality and her attitude, I think those things can resonate with people as well.”
“Spanish-speaking people enjoyed the fact that it was something cultural that they could connect to. And what a big hit it became.”
Summer might actually affect your listening habits.
Aigen suggested that even summer itself might persuade us to listen to the same song over and over again.
“Summer has a mythic association for all of us,” he said. “Our routines change, we become outdoorsy. It’s almost like we return to nature and outdoors and social things. We’re not sitting at home cocooning alone.”
Isaura González, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Latina empowerment and coaching organization Latina Mastermind, also noted that certain music can be a communal experience for friends and family.
“Part of the listening repetition is the meaning behind the song and the connectivity that occurs across people,” she said. “There’s almost a connection that occurs, so it’s relational.”
González noted that songs can also be a cultural experience for groups of people. Take “Despacito” for example, which became a hit for both Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking people.
“There was that melodic tone to it and that repetition,” she said. “Spanish-speaking people enjoyed the fact that it was something cultural that they could connect to. And what a big hit it became.”
Some songs are simply timeless.
Of course, there are also songs from decades ago that people love today. Aigen said that every year he’s surprised that his students, who are typically in their 20s and 30s, know so many songs from the ’60s.
“There was something very special about that time period that enabled the creation of an art form that will endure for a long, long time,” he said.
Aigen also listed Motown artists and musicians Bob Marley and Bob Dylan as having tapped into an “archetypal facet of the human experience,” a timeless quality that’s helped that music rise to the level of art.
“They’re not just a commodity that’s meant to be popular for two months and then disappear,” he said. “They’re created for different motivation.”
Other songs are just plain catchy.
Aigen joked that in the early ’90s, he “could not get away” from the “Macarena.”
“Sometimes the songs are just so catchy, and that’s the reason they create this sense of familiarity and comfort, and you just return to it again and again,” he said.
These songs are also appealing because it doesn’t take a lot of effort to engage with them, Aigen added.
Whatever the reason behind your most frequently played music, it’s likely that those songs make you feel something. And that doesn’t always mean happiness. Sometimes, as Ortiz noted, it’s just nice to feel.
“People love to listen to songs repeatedly because that helps them recover a certain feeling. It could be sadness, melancholy or happiness,” he said. “We are constantly trying to go back to some kind of lost paradise. Songs always help.”