MBNA Unravels the Science of the Perfect Mixtape to Celebrate the Release of Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
All hail the marvel that is the mixtape. From battered old C90s with new titles painstakingly etched on top of Tippexed-out old ones, right through to 21st century playlists streamed through snazzy wireless speakers, these humble home-made compilations truly span the ages.
But what exactly separates a great mixtape – like the out-of-this-world Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks – from a duff one? How do you go about honing a DIY album that will both enchant and inspire the listener, rather than have them reaching for the stop button?
It got us thinking – could there be a scientific formula that can be applied to what often seems such an intangible and elusive art form?
We decided to enlist the expert help of Dr Daniel Müllensiefen, a Reader in Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Get ready to be a mixtape maestro before you can say ‘I am Groot’…
What’s the essence of a great mixtape?
In short, a good mixtape or playlist is one that has a psychological impact on the person or people who listen to it. Does it stir strong emotions, make people want to dance or sing along, or have some deep meaning for the listener?
“From the scientific perspective of music psychology, the construction of a perfect mix tape needs to take into account three essential factors,” Dr Müllensiefen informs us. “The audience, the context and the music.”
Know your audience
The key here is to create something that’s going to grab your intended listener and never let them go. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But there are a few things to take into account.
“First you need to identify the age of your target audience to maximise chances that people will be familiar with the songs on your mixtape,” says Dr Müllensiefen. The tried and trusted route is the nostalgic one, with the sweet spot found in music that was riding high in the charts during their late teens and early twenties.
“The so-called ‘mere exposure effects’ tell us that familiarity breeds liking,” says Dr M. “Hence there’s a good chance they will like it, especially if you take the gender and socio-cultural background of your audience into account as well.”
Match the mood
Think about the function of the music. After all, a mixtape that’s set to soundtrack a party will sound very different to one designed to create the right mood for a romantic dinner.
Our go-to boffin also points out music always comes with some sort of prestige or brand image.
“Classical music and jazz are generally high-brow, Radiohead stands for advanced pop culture, Justin Bieber is associated with screaming girls, and ‘La Macarena’ with embarrassing holiday moments. Thus, while mixtapes for parties might all feature up-tempo songs with a clear beat, choosing the wrong ‘brand’ of music for a party will put people off.”
Can we just say at this point that perfecting the ‘La Macarena’ dance actually holds some pretty great memories for us. Thanks.
Now the really important bit. This is the factor that will decide if yours lasts for all eternity or have the listener wishing they were doing something infinitely more interesting. Like calculating the perfect credit card for a friend based on their individual circumstances (Or is that just us?).
The key here is to choose the optimum order of songs on your tape. A secret recipe for getting this right is to link adjacent songs by the principles of similarity and contrast. In other words, make sure the songs following each other have some features in common and others that are different.
“These can be simple musical features such as genre or type of instrumentation or more conceptual features like bitter love songs,” explains Dr Müllensiefen patiently. “In addition to these principles that govern local song-to-song transitions, it is very important to consider the dramatic composition of the mixtape as a whole.”
Crank up the drama
As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to inject a real sense of the dramatic into your mixtape. Here’s Dr Müllensiefen again.
“For many situations it is most effectual to structure your mixtape like a classic drama,” he says. “You start with an exposition establishing what the overall genre and time period are going to be. Then you build up the musical narrative over subsequent songs by intensifying musical parameters such as tempo, dynamics and instrumentation to lead into the climax which features the main song – or songs – that convey the core message of what the mixtape is about.”
So on the original Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack the tone is set with Parliament’s Flashlight – putting us firmly in the realm of late 70s funk, before a steady rise in tempo with the fuzz of Suffragette City from the late, great David Bowie.
The big finish
Nope, the climax to the perfect mixtape doesn’t actually come at the end of the playlist. That’s a classic error committed by amateurs destined to have their mixtapes scattered to the four winds.
“The climax should actually come about two-thirds into the overall duration of the tape,” pronounces the ever sage Dr M. “Finally you wind down by de-intensifying musical parameters again before you end with a song that summarises the main message of the tape in a reflective way.”
Two-thirds through the original Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack we hit Cherry Bomb by The Runaways. This timeless riot grrl anthem cements the theme – particularly apt for a film where renegades and scoundrels are ultimately the heroes.
Rounding it off is the triumphant Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – a song that reflects the euphoric feeling in the cinema of our heroes finally winning the day.
So there you have it. We’ve finally cracked the formula for the perfect music masterpiece. You’re welcome. Now, go forth and mixtape.