Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Why we always choose the same songs for the Top 2000

As the year draws to a close, many music lovers are looking forward to the Top 2000. How high is their favourite song and who is number one? But the list is often very predictable and the same songs are always in the top 10. According to neuropsychologist and associate professor Rebecca Schaefer, it’s the repetition that we like so much about this list of all lists.

Schaefer researches the effects of music and how it can be used for health applications. ‘It’s interesting how much we love repetition when it comes to music,’ says Schaefer. ‘We often seek out the familiar with music. For researchers the question is also why we like that so much.’

The answer, says Schaefer, is because we listen with different systems. ‘If you listen to a piece of music that you already know, then you know what’s coming. But you also unconsciously hear to what extent it differs from what is predictable for music.’ Schaefer gives the example of deviating from a standard chord progression. ‘That’s what keeps it interesting because it deviates from this standard recipe.’


The memories we associate with music also play an important role in repeated listening. ‘The more often you listen, the more layered the memory becomes. Some tracks are linked to one specific summer at secondary school, but others stay with you for life. You have lots of associations and feelings about them. If a song like that reminds you of a person that you care for, the piece of music embodies much more than just what’s in the music.’

‘It’s music that you sing along to all your life that you have strong memories of’

Top 2000 voters mainly appear to choose music from their youth. ‘Research clearly shows that people have a special place in their heart for the music that they listened to between the ages of 12 and 20,’ says Schaefer. ‘That’s called the reminiscence bump. It’s music that you can sing along to all your life and the music you have strong memories of.’

Schaefer also sees this reminiscence bump in her research into the effects of music on people with dementia. ‘If you count back to the period a person was a teenager in, you can often predict what kind of music they will respond to well.’


Rock music dominates the Top 2000 each year, whereas pop, dance and hip-hop appear less frequently on the list. Are certain genres more appealing to the brain than others? Schaefer doesn’t think so. ‘I prefer to separate it all from genres. It’s about what music means to someone. Within each genre you have a whole range of emotions that can be expressed.’

She does see other differences between genres that can influence voting behaviour. ‘We also have a bit of a preconceived idea of what “good music” is. Perhaps rock ballads, which have completely different principles than much newer electronic music, conform better to this idea.’

Is the Top 2000 a bit elitist then? ‘Within its own niche perhaps.’

Pop music is sometimes seen as music for people who are less cultivated, says Schaefer. ‘When pop music is by definition the music that most people like. The idea that good music rises above this is based on the principle that music has do more than be fun and make you feel good. But getting that feeling across is actually one of the most important things that music does.’ Is the Top 2000 a bit elitist then? ‘Within its own niche perhaps.’

Collective opinion

It’s the joint search for good music that makes the Top 2000 so appealing, says Schaefer. ‘It’s a collective opinion, a kind of answer to a collective question. That appeals to people. Music is social by nature, it’s communicative and tries to get something across. We often also experience music in a group context. But the Top 2000 is a competition too. It gives validation if your track is high up. Then you know you’re not alone.’

Text: Tom Janssen

This website uses cookies.  More information.