We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

People Like Songs About ‘You’

Songs with lyrics that frequently address 'you' are more popular, perhaps because this helps us imagine that 'you' refers to people in our own lives.

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Feb 29, 2020 12:00 AMApr 26, 2020 7:14 PM
shutterstock 217578994
Your musical tastes reflect your thinking style. (Credit: arvitalyaart/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Many of the world's classic songs are all about "you" — consider Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You", The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and Elton John's "Your Song."

According to a new study just published in Psychological Science, there's a good reason why "you" feature so much in song lyrics. Researchers Grant Packard and Jonah Berger show that the popularity of songs is correlated with the amount of "you" in the lyrics.

Packard and Berger first examined the lyrics of 1,736 English-language songs that made it to the Billboard Top 50 downloads chart from 2014-2016. They found that higher ranking songs tended to contain a higher density of "you" or related words ("yours," "yourself"). This was true even after controlling for the genre, the artist and the topic of the song.

What's more, popularity was most strongly predicted by use of "you" as the object of a sentence (e.g. "Coming at you like a dark horse") rather than "you" as a the subject ("You can't touch it").

Packard and Berger suggest that object-you lyrics are especially popular because they help listeners to project the lyrics onto people in their own lives: "You" is a uniquely flexible pronoun, which could apply to anyone.

We suggest that second-person pronouns, rather than putting listeners in the singer’s shoes, or encouraging them to see the singer’s personal perspective (e.g., Whitney Houston’s views about her own love), seem to encourage audiences to imagine the narrative in relation to someone in their own lives.

In this way, second-person pronouns encourage narrative transportation, but rather than being transported into someone else’s narrative, people are given a new way of looking at their own lives ... the lyrics encourage people to experience some aspect of their lives through the lens of the singer’s lyrics

In follow-up studies, Packard and Berger provide considerable extra evidence for the power of the lyrical "you." In particular, they carried out two experimental studies to show that editing lyrics to add "you" makes people like them more. This suggests that the you effect is indeed causal, and not just a correlation.

Two studies show that lyrics containing the word "you" (second person) are rated more highly than lyrics in which "you" is replaced by "her" or "him" (third person) or "it" (no person). (Credit: Packard & Berger 2020 Psychological Science)

In my view, this is a strong set of studies. I like the proposed explanation — that we relate to songs about "you" because we can imagine that the song is about someone in our own life.

To really test this theory, though, I'd want to see evidence that second-person pronouns make lyrics more popular in other languages, not just English.

Also, many languages have a plural second-person pronoun, and others have an informal and a formal singular "you" (the formal one is sometimes also the plural).

If Packard's and Berger's theory is right, I would predict that it would be the singular, informal "you" that would most predict liking, as this is the "you" that people would most likely use to address people close to them.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.