Thursday, October 3, 2013

Favorite Songs

The other day I was out for a run when a Stones song came on over my headphones. This isn't earth-shattering news since I have many Rolling Stones songs on my playlist and chances are that at least a few will pop up. Predictable as it is, I’ll pick up my pace, run a little harder, and feel all-around more energized when I hear "Jumping Jack Flash" or "Honky Tonk Woman." I've listened to these songs for most of my life, yet they never fail to excite me. And it’s not just when I’m exercising. Hearing "Waiting on a Friend" play over the car radio always puts a smile on my face.

Why do we never grow tired of the songs we love? I asked seasoned musician and professor of psychology Dr. Kevin Volkan about this phenomenon. He said something that surprised me: “Research has shown that the emotions triggered by loved music tend to be negative. We listen to a favorite song and it reminds us of when we were lonely." This made sense to me since I’ve known people that have experienced painful break-ups. They said sad songs made them feel less alone. Other people have survived heartbreak and written songs to express their grief. In Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, author Steve Almond calls these songs “depression songs.” He says that listening to a sad song allows us to access repressed feelings. “They articulate a preexisting depression and, when they’re really cooking, they ennoble that depression." They help us appreciate situations that would otherwise make us miserable.

I don't consider my favorite Stones songs to be particularly sad. Instead, they invigorate me. They make me happy, and I assume much of my appreciation has to do with personal taste. In addition to our attraction to sad or depressive songs, Dr. Volkan adds, "Of course there are also aesthetic considerations. I think we can also listen to music just for the art." Beyond valuing our favorite songs for the way they make us feel is the pure joy the music or song itself offers – the way Keith Richards strums the guitar intro to “Waiting on a Friend,” followed by the beautiful, melodic sound of a piano as Mick Jagger sings the opening sounds, “doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo da-do.”

I’ve often wondered why I don’t become desensitized to these favorite songs that I’ve heard over and over again. Perhaps the brain triggers something physical when we listen to them. As any pseudo-researcher would, I turned to Google. Instead of scientific data, I found dozens of personal playlists,“10 Songs I Never Get Tired of” and the like. One of my favorite programs on Los Angeles public radio station KCRW is the guest DJ project where people, mostly in the entertainment field, discuss songs that “move and inspire” them. Each list is unique and the reasons for loving them as diverse as the celebrity DJs themselves. In the end, it really does seem to come down to individual tastes.

Whether my response is an emotional or physiological one, every time on turn on my music and hit shuffle, I hope it lands on one of my favorites.

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