What Makes Music Appealing?

thethinker Last week, D. Grant Smith had me write about my first concert experience and this week he posed a truly thought provoking question- what makes music appealing? Immediately off the top of my head I can quote any number of 50s and 60s era song lyrics about “back beat” and the importance of rhythm. Or I can get technical about time signatures, instrumentation, phrasing, catchy hooks and wordsmith-ing. I’m not sure any of that really answers the question. And certainly, no one is asking me for a lesson in music theory.

What it boils down to is that in order for music to be appealing it has to connect to something inside of you physically or mentally. Whether the song has lyrics or not, is classical or funk, the song itself has to elicit a response from the listener- tapping a toe or nodding your head, mouthing the words before you even really know them, humming the melody, or thinking about the song long after it has stopped playing.

Recently, the handwritten lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” brought in a record breaking two million dollars at auction. It’s just four sheets of hotel stationary with the tune sketched out in pencil. Dylan fanatics aside, most people would probably roll their eyes at that kind of purchase. It seems excessive. It seems almost foolish. What makes “Like a Rolling Stone” lyrics, or Dylan for that matter, worthy of a record breaking sum? Free will. The lyrics are worth the money because someone had the money and the interest and bought them of their own free will because he/she had a connection and reaction to that particular tune. Never mind that it often tops lists of the best songs ever recorded. Never mind that one song changed a lot of the ways that music was recorded, changed how artists wrote, changed how record companies promoted and got behind singles, or that it is the song that even Dylan admits is the one that changed his life and launched him into the strata of “icon.”

Even the biggest Dylan neophyte probably has heard “Like a Rolling Stone” or bits of it in some shape or fashion over the years. Why? Because the song makes you want throw your head back while you’re holding the steering wheel and shout along with the song:

“How does it feel

How does it feel

To be on your own

With no direction home

Like a complete unknown

Like a rolling stone”


It’s angry, it’s unapologetic, it’s easy to remember and it’s catchy as hell. Is it the best song ever written? No. It doesn’t have to be. It’s compelling because it gets a reaction from the listener.

Find any song that you personally like and I guarantee you have some reaction to it. Maybe you whistle along with Otis Redding or The Black Keys. Maybe you clap along with James Brown or Pharrell. Maybe you can’t get the lyrics to “Goodbye Earl” out of your head (which I wouldn’t go around admitting to anyone) or the canon fire from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. Those are all reactions and that’s what makes us turn on the tunes. That’s what makes music appealing.


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