Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hey, Come Back Here!


Dr. Ned Hallowell is one of the world’s foremost experts on ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) so if anyone knows a thing or two about grabbing and keeping someone’s attention it’s…wait, where was I? 

Oh yeah.  Dr. Hallowell uses an acronym to describe the elements used in holding someone’s attention: SIN.  These stand for Structure, Interaction, and Novelty.  He certainly had my attention, as this is something I’ve encountered before in music. 

I’ve noticed that without structure, music tends to wander and get boring very quickly.  Without novelty, it gets boring even quicker. But what about Interaction?  Clearly, given the amount of time people love to spend listening to music, it keeps their attention. People sit there with headphones on and don’t move, yet they’re enraptured and music is a powerful force that moves their life. This scene doesn’t seem very interactive.  Or is it?

Perhaps the interactivity in listening to music comes with the familiarity of whatever piece of music you’re listening to.  If you’re familiar with the tune, then your brain knows what’s coming next, and actually anticipates it, essentially playing along with the song.  This is about as interactive, on a mental level, as anything you could hope to do.

This is also why the catchiest tunes tend to be quite simple.  The more quickly your brain becomes familiar with the tune, the more quickly you become interactive with it, and the more it holds your attention.  Pop tunes tend to use repetition along with this simplicity to reinforce the process.  And remember all those infectious TV jingles you wish you couldn’t remember?  Simple, repeated, and therefore quickly familiar.

Of course, simplicity and repetition aren’t enough.  Remember that structure and novelty are part of the equation as well, so just repeating two notes over and over won’t hold your attention for very long.

In composing production music, the understanding of these principles is what tends to separate the “not bad” composers from the great ones.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard tracks that were a fantastic 20-second idea that was then basically repeated ad infinitum for 2-3 minutes.  But a truly great track has a structure as well as a changing landscape within that structure.

This is one more thing that separates good production music from bad, and which good video producers know instinctively, whether they know the causes or not.  Therefore, if you find yourself wondering why a piece of music is boring, ask yourself if it contains structure and novelty or if it wanders around aimlessly or just repeats itself into the ground.

And for those of you whose attention has been held this far into this blog entry, click here.

No, nothing will happen if you do, but I’ve just added interactivity to structure and novelty.  I guess you could say I put the Interactivity in SIN. 

Thanks for your attention.

-Dave Hab