As I was walking past Lulu’s to campus the other day, the song that was blasting out across the steps was one I was not familiar with. Usually, I can recognize universally appealing tunes. However, this upbeat, over-produced song about love or dancing or whatever was something I could instantly recognize as pop music. Sometimes, I think people forget that the “pop” in pop music is short for popular. With this song fading into the distance, I started to contemplate what makes popular music popular and why so much of it sounds the same. I mean, really, how many times have you heard the new hot young thing sing about infatuation over a beat everyone can dance to?

The absorption of culture begins at a very young age. We begin to take in the world around us and learn things like apples grow from trees and Mommy gets mad when we spill juice on the rug. What we are also learning, but less consciously, are the schemata associated with places we go and things that we do. For example, the schema associated with going to the beach is that it is fun and sunny. An idea proposed by Ernest Schachtel is that when we recall events, we often recall just the schema associated with the event and not what we actually experienced. Maybe you were mad that the seagulls ate all your potato chips on the beach, but when someone asks you, “How was the beach?” you are more likely to say, “Why, it was fun and sunny!” than reporting that you were angry. In this way, we can lose all the meaning of an experience by replacing it with the schema.

The same thing can happen with music. If we let popular culture assert that music sounds a certain way, and we do not object, then we can listen to music churned out using the same formula and enjoy it again and again.

The next time that you plug in your iPod or turn on the radio, really listen to the song that is playing. Maybe you will have an epiphany and fall head over heels for that chord progression, or maybe you will realize that you’ve heard that melody a million times before. Either way, I can almost guarantee that you will have a completely new experience.