Have you ever listened to a new piece of music that you’ve heard was “perfect” or an artist’s “masterpiece” and not actually liked it right away? Or, have you ever heard a new work by one of your favorite artists, still not loved it upon first or even second listen, but maybe warmed up to it later?
I have definitely been there, and I’ve noticed something interesting in maybe 90% of those cases: the frequency with which I listen to new music seems to correspond to how positively I feel about that music over time.
In my first post, “Why Do We Like the Music We Like?” I mentioned how early familiarity with certain genres of music helps to shape our musical preferences as adults. When I wrote that, I hadn’t thought of this side of that issue, the matter of liking music you once disliked.
One of my favorite YouTube channels is called Canadian Studmuffin, where Trenton, Ontario-based YouTuber Larry Graves reviews classic rock music and does comedy videos. Over the years, he has mentioned this matter every so often: the importance of giving yourself time to appreciate music that you don’t like at first.
So, all of this has got me thinking. I want to explore this subject and talk about the power of musical repetition, or how music can grow on us, given enough time and exposure to it. I’ll illustrate the matter using a perfect example from my own life: how dramatically my opinion has changed over the years on Paul Simon’s 1990 worldbeat album The Rhythm of the Saints.
What Is the Mere-Exposure Effect?
German psychologist Gustav Fechner is believed to have been the first to study what is now called the mere-exposure effect, in 1876. The name of the concept describes it well: this is a phenomenon in which we enjoy and appreciate something the more familiar we are with it.
The effect is also called the familiarity principle, and it can apply not only to our music preferences, but also to love, attraction, and advertising.
Think about your workplace, as an example. You get a new job, and everyone is a stranger at first. But that isn’t the case after a few months or years. Some people become attracted to certain coworkers over time. Our familiarity with these people tends to breed that attraction. We know them. We know what to expect from them. We start liking them.
The mere-exposure effect happens all the time, including with people and music.
Paul Simon, the Mere-Exposure Effect, and Me
Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints really is the perfect example for me to use in describing the mere-exposure effect. In the decades after Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970, Paul took his solo career in some interesting and to-me unfamiliar directions.
Paul has always known how to make a hit. He did it multiple times over with Simon and Garfunkel and continued it with his solo work. This is why I enjoyed his 1970s records so much, and so easily.
Then, I started skipping around Paul Simon’s discography and landed on 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. On this album, Paul continued the tradition he had started with his 1986 record Graceland: that of recording worldbeat/pop music with musicians from other countries and cultures.
With Graceland, the focus had been South African music. On The Rhythm of the Saints, it was Afro-Brazilian and other Latin American influences, played with musicians from those cultures.
When I first heard The Rhythm of the Saints in 2012, I hadn’t yet heard Graceland, so I didn’t know what Paul had been up to at this point in his career.
My first listen to The Rhythm of the Saints was terrible. To my 21-year-old self, the album was slow and boring. For the most part, it had no recognizable melodies that I could recall after a listen. The songs meandered through their tunes with lots of strange percussion instruments that I identified as being from other cultures, but that I still didn’t like any more.
However, I stuck with it, and listened to The Rhythm of the Saints over and over again. I still hated it after several months. I chalked it up to one of those albums that maybe received some good reviews at the time, but that I would just never “get.”
Then, one day, with no prior warning, it clicked for me. I don’t remember much about where I was when this happened, or when it happened, except that it was quite some time later. That’s how unremarkably The Rhythm of the Saints slipped into my personal canon of favorite music. It seems I literally went from disliking it to liking it.
I think it’s important to repeat that I gave this album quite enough time to sink in. I probably listened to The Rhythm of the Saints between 15 and 20 times before I got it. And I didn’t attempt to “cram” in all those listens in a few weeks. I’m talking about years here.
Now, the Afro-Brazilian batucada music made sense in my mind. The heavy percussion of this samba-music subset gave me that driving rhythm feeling that I love in my tunes. The congas sounded cool, and the melodies were free to meander all they liked. Songs such as “She Moves On” and “The Coast” are relaxing and enjoyable now, whereas before, they were simply confounding.
Exposing myself to that music over time had indeed done its long work. I now appreciated how Paul Simon had combined Western pop music with Latin American musical styles to create a unique work of art.
The Power of Musical Repetition Can Open New Doors
Being unfamiliar with any form of Latin American music had prevented me from liking The Rhythm of the Saints initially. I gave it about 20 listens over several years, and now I’m enjoying the fruits of that labor.
This is how I think the mere-exposure effect can open all kinds of new musical doors for us if we allow it. There’s that level of music that each of us already knows we like. It’s probably music that’s familiar to us already in some form. But then there’s another level of music–the stuff that goes against our grain–that we can access if we’re just patient enough to let it work our minds.
For me, learning about the mere-exposure effect has at least given me the option of trying to like certain new music. If I really feel like I want to attempt that, then I now know what’s involved. And I think that can be fun.