The psychology of putting on music #GetTUknow: Dr. Marcus Friedrich
“Club instead of lecture hall” is the motto on 17 November, when professors and lecturers will once again put on music in Braunschweig’s discotheques at Profs@Turntables. Dr. Marcus Friedrich, research assistant at the Institute of Educational Psychology, has a lot to say about the fact that good DJing is not only a science in itself, but also involves a lot of science. As DJ Fry, he has been performing at parties all over Germany for 25 years. We met him and talked about how much psychology is involved in DJing.
Mr. Friedrich, how did you get into DJing?
My best friend and I were 18 and had the dream of becoming successful DJs. At first, we DJed at high school parties during our upper school years. Our role models were the great Dutch techno DJs of the 1990s. At our youthful age, however, we also overestimated the prospect of success. You see mainly the successful ones and not the many who have little or no success. In psychology, this kind of distorted perception is called “survivorship bias”. I haven’t stopped DJing since then. Firstly, because it’s fun, and secondly, because I had bought the technology anyway.
You then studied psychology. What was your motivation there?
I like to tell that story in lectures (laughs). Once I didn’t pay attention in maths class for three weeks and wanted to catch up on the subject matter with my textbook. When that didn’t work out so well, I wondered why. I had my textbook and it was supposed to teach me the subject matter in an understandable way. That’s how I ended up in teaching and learning psychology and am currently investigating the comprehensibility of textbooks, for example.
Are there any links between DJing and psychology?
Absolutely! Actually, studying psychology has helped me to DJ better. There are different psychological models that I could use to improve my work as a DJ. For example, while reading the Psychologie des Lernens (Psychology of Learning) by Guy R. Lefrançois, I noticed that the arousal theory helps me decide when to play which song at a party.
What does the arousal theory say?
“Arousal” means excitement and the theory describes, among other things, at which level of excitement we are most efficient. This is the case at the medium arousal level and this is what we strive for. The level of arousal is mainly controlled by the amount and novelty of the information that comes at us. If our arousal level is lower than our arousal need, then we will seek out stimulating environments. If, on the other hand, our arousal level is higher than our need for arousal, we are more likely to seek out familiar environments with less new information. This is the reason, for example, why we turn off the car radio when looking for a parking space in a foreign city. We want to reduce the amount of information and thus the excitement.
For DJing, the theory actually means that at the beginning of a party I prefer to choose music that offers more and more novel musical information. That would be, for example, more unknown songs. Current hits should be played when people are slowly striving for less information. These are then songs that they know but are also still new. The later it gets, the more monotonous and familiar the music should then become.
What does that mean for your performance at Profs@Turntables?
In my experience at Profs@Turntables, you should play better-known hits right away. This is partly because you only have one hour as a DJ, and partly because the audience is very heterogeneous. Every musical taste is represented there. Moreover, the audience doesn’t come to me in the room because they want to listen to a certain type of music. These are all factors that speak for music that a large part of the partygoers know.
What do you generally put on?
In the early days, I played a lot of gabber – Dutch hardcore techno. But now I play more jazz, funk, house, hip-hop, rock’n’roll, trance and techno. It was a long way from gabber to jazz, funk, house, and so on. At some point, my best friend and I had to choose between playing our favourite music or playing in front of an audience. That’s when we decided to go for more crowd-pleasing music genres. (laughs)
What makes a good DJ?
Psychology again provides us with an answer here – among other things with the offer-use model by Andreas Helmke. The DJ makes an offer with his music and the partygoers can use it against the background of their current mood, preferences, etc., for example by dancing. If they do not use the offer, the DJ should adjust his offer. A good DJ should therefore be able to read his audience. In addition, the DJ should know a lot of music and like to dance himself. Not to be underestimated is the ability to jump over one’s own shadow and play music that is in demand with the audience and that you yourself would not listen to at the same time. Of course, good DJing is also a question of practice.
Which song do you reliably fill the dance floor with?
It depends a lot on the audience. If there was one song that always worked, every DJ would play it. That would get boring very quickly. You have to have an eye for your audience. Developmental psychology provides an interesting clue here. The central developmental task in adolescence is to build one’s own identity. Around the age of 12 or 13, young people usually begin to listen to music and to associate themselves with a youth culture. What one listens to at this age, one usually likes to listen to throughout one’s life. Musical tastes naturally broaden, but this music remains a solid core. This is also shown by usage studies of streaming services. So if you look at your audience and know what music was current when the party guests were 13 or 14 years old, then you already have a very good starting point.
Why then do party hits work that many would probably not choose privately?
Party hits are usually played late at night and have a simple beat and lyrics that are easy to sing along with. According to the arousal theory, the amount of information is therefore limited and they serve our reduced need for excitement. In addition, I would guess that because everyone can sing along, these songs quickly create a sense of community. It’s just fun together.
Let’s come to the end: What is good music as a “bouncer”?
If you want the party to end, frequent rhythm changes help. And songs that feel like they take out energy through their tempo. Ballads, for example, are suitable for this, if that’s what you want.
Thank you very much for the interview & have fun at Profs@Turntables.