Well-Being//

Why We Love Cover Songs, According to Psychology

Brain science sheds some surprising light on why you can’t stop binge-listening Weezer’s new covers album.

Courtesy of MarcelloGoggio / Getty Images
Courtesy of MarcelloGoggio / Getty Images

Confession: I spent much of last week at my desk listening to the new Weezer album. I’m not sure I’m proud to admit that. Then again, it’s not every week that Weezer drops a surprise album of cover songs.

Weezer (The Teal Album) is the cover album I didn’t know I wanted. I wasn’t even alive when nine out of 10 of the featured songs were surfing the charts, and yet, for reasons I can’t quite wrap my head around, I can’t turn my ears off of this mix. “Billie Jean,” “Africa,” “No Scrubs” — these are all on my and my friends’ heavy karaoke rotation. So why am I shamelessly binging an album of classic covers through my sole functioning earbud when I could just as easily queue up the original tracks? I decided to find the scientific answers behind my obsession. Turns out, there’s something uniquely enticing about the concept of covers — and an album full of them — that’s got me and the 90s Twittersphere hooked.

From Rent: Live to Pentatonix to tribute bands to karaoke to Christmas songs, covers take on many forms in our cultural arts. They are an omnipresent part of our media consumption, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. “Creativity in pop music has always been rooted in the experience of sharing, whether we’re talking about ideas, influences, or emotions,” Jason King, Ph.D., an associate professor at NYU Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, told Thrive. This fundamental sense of connection underpins both our public appetite for covers of our favorite songs and the drive for artists to keep them coming — and each feeds into the other. Simply put, covers are just as fun to hear and share as they are to make. As King continued, “if done with creativity, imagination and skill, a cover version can help us ‘re-hear’ an original song in new and thrilling ways.”

“Re-hearing” a cover song appeals to our minds on a basic psychological level. “Our brains like both the familiar and the novel. Cover songs provide us with both,” Petr Janata, Ph.D., a music psychologist at UC Davis, notes. “The familiarity of the melodies and the lyrics allow our brains to form expectations, which, in part, are confirmed, thus giving us a certain amount of pleasure. Then we also usually take pleasure from listening to the deviations in the new rendition, i.e. the unique elements that the band playing the cover brings to the experience,” he says.

This consummate juxtaposition of the new and recognizable is what makes covers so exciting to savor and share — and debate. “Hearing something you love all dressed up in a new outfit is exciting; it’s familiar but new. Whether or not you like this new outfit is the fun part,” Melissa Ferrick, songwriting professor at Berklee College of Music, explains. “There’s nothing like a good argument amongst friends about whether or not that cover song is good.” So when my fellow “Rentheads” and I heard Vanessa Hudgens and Kiersey Clemons perform “Take Me Or Leave Me” in “Rent: Live” (rather, not-so-Live), our brains were juggling two complimentary processes: some expectations being met (knowing the song from previous versions), and otherwise being pleasantly surprised (enjoying the novel touches Hudgens and Clemons brought to the performance). And when we debate the merits of the new performance compared to those of Idina Menzel and Fredi Walker in the original Broadway cast and Idina and Tracie Thoms in the 2005 film, we’re bonding over our shared experience, reinforcing the sense of connectedness that drives songs to be covered in the first place. That’s a lot of exciting social and psychological dynamics for our brains to take in.

These pleasurable effects are particularly potent if the songs that were covered bring back memories. We know from a strong body of research that music is one of the most powerful sources of nostalgia, which brings its own benefits to our mental well-being, like boosting our happiness and reinforcing a sense of connection with those who share our memories and sentiments. As Beth Denisch, composition professor also at Berklee College of Music, tells Thrive, “We love cover songs because they remind us of those special times in our lives when we first heard the song, or when it took on special meaning because of a special someone.” We tend to feel nostalgic particularly for songs from our teens and early 20s, the formative years from which our memories are especially strong and sentimental. More and more research is underway into how nostalgia can boost our mental well-being.

And then there’s a twist: We can experience nostalgia even for songs from before our time! A 2013 Cornell University study found that participants reported fond memories not just of music from their own formative years, but for music from their parents’ childhoods. The researchers refer to this phenomena as “cascading reminiscence bumps.” So when my friends and I belt out Toto’s “Africa” on a night out in K-town, what we’re feeling isn’t a nostalgia based on memories of our own — which we don’t have — but rather a vicarious glow of warmth, most likely from hearing our parents play it around the house or in the car. That gives the already communal experience of coming together to sing karaoke an added benefit. And given all the chatter on social media, I’m far from the only child of the 90s to be feeling these warm fuzzies from the trending tracks on Teal.

In the spirit of sharing, here are some standout covers to lift your mental well-being and add a little throwback flavor to your week.

  1. Over the Rainbow” — Israel Kamakawiwoʻole
  2. Lovesong” — Adele
  3. Feeling Good” — Ms. Lauryn Hill
  4. You’ve Got a Friend” — Lady Gaga
  5. Jolene” — Miley Cyrus
  6. One” — Aimee Mann, from Magnolia
  7. Can’t Help Falling In Love” — Kina Grannis, from Crazy Rich Asians
  8. Rebel Rebel” — Seu Jorge, from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
  9. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” — Kishi Bashi
  10. Across the Universe” — Rufus Wainwright

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