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I am always keen to find new music to play with Anne-Marie, at weddings and events when we are out performing as ‘JAM Duo’.  Mostly AM is in charge of the music choices, as she has a wide experience particularly of contemporary songs, and always seems to know what song will suit the occasion, as well as being appropriate for our Cello and Piano Duo.

From time to time, I might stumble across a song which, when tried, seems to work rather well. Surprisingly some of my song choices have even made it into our regular repertoire at weddings!

Ultimately of course, whilst AM has a very good idea of what songs the modern day bride is likely to want at her wedding, the final choice of music comes down to our customers.    Unlike most musicians, we do not limit people to a repertoire list; instead publishing recordings of the most popular songs for inspiration. We offer this to our prospective wedding couples and invite them to either select songs we have recorded or give us a list of songs for us to arrange and perform.

Occasionally, there might be songs which don’t work for our instrumental combination of cello and piano, but this is mostly on a practical level – for example it’s difficult to see how we can arrange a rap song to work on the cello!

Nevertheless, our policy of letting the customer choose their music has served us well for the past few years. It is also a great way for us to discover new songs and get to know what music the typical bride of 2023 would like at her wedding.

With this in mind, I was intrigued by some recent research from the University of Oxford.  A research team made up of scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, used singing experiments to perform the largest ever cultural transmission study on the evolution of music.

The research team developed a novel method to simulate the evolution of music with singing experiments, where sung melodies are passed from one singer to the next. Over time, participants make errors in their efforts to replicate the melodies that they hear, gradually shaping the evolution of music in systematic ways.

Despite the infinite patterns in which music could be combined, the researchers found in practice, ‘human transmission biases’ shape vocal music towards those structures that are easier to learn and transmit.

Whilst this is fascinating I’m not entirely sure what it tells us that we shouldn’t already know?   When I was studying GCSE music at Cranleigh, on a slightly grey Wednesday in 1990, I remember one particular lesson starting with a game of Chinese whispers.   I forget now what the phrase was which was passed around the room of approximately 15 students. But in essence if it started out as “I like studying music” the final result was probably “Is it time for cake yet?”

In 2012 a global game of Chinese Whispers was played spanning 237 individuals speaking seven different languages. Beginning in Melbourne library in Australia, the starting phrase “Life must be lived as a play” (a quote from Plato), had become “He bites snails” by the time the game reached its end in Alaska 26 hours later.

What we can deduce from this is probably two things.  Firstly people don’t listen properly and secondly the average human being will probably hear something which they can relate to – selective hearing you might call it!

So, unless I have missed something this ‘new’ research by Oxford University, credible thought it might be, doesn’t seem to be groundbreaking.   From my own experience as a wedding musician, it is clear that the majority of our customers ask for music they can relate to.  TV and film themes are increasingly popular.  Only this weekend for example, a wedding guest came over to compliment us on our playing and then asked if we knew anything from Bridgerton.  We responded by performing the main theme for her!

Similarly last week, we arranged a version of ‘All we Do’ by Oh Wonder and the first time we played it all I heard was mutterings from people around the room saying ‘oh that’s the tune from Unforgotten’.

So yes, it seems the vast majority of people prefer music they can relate to, and more importantly something which has a very defined ‘tune’ or musical reference.  ‘All we do’, for example, has a very distinctive but simple piano introduction of just 4 repeated notes, hence the easy association with ‘Unforgotten’.

So returning to my original question in the title of this post, ‘What Makes a Good Song’, I would suggest one possibility is a song which remains recognisable after transmission via Chinese Whispers.

The thing is, the people at Oxford are right in their conclusion that ‘human transmission biases’ shape vocal music towards those structures that are easier to learn and transmit. I’m just not sure this is anything we didn’t already know!

For example, if you started your Chinese whispers in a University Music Department with the opening line of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and  then gradually sent that around campus via students in other disciplines,  you would probably end up with the opening of ‘All we do’.

All this tells us is that people hear what they want to hear, or what they believe they have heard based on their own knowledge and interests.  I for one am not sure that’s groundbreaking research, but it is always good to know that there are people out there thinking about such things!

Jules Addison was once offered an organ scholarship at the University of Oxford, but turned it down on the basis he didn’t like the look of Oriel College and didn’t fancy spending 3 years living in a city surrounded by tourists!

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