Music by VICE

Why Do We Associate Songs With Certain Seasons?

From golden synth lines to icy piano keys, music has long been linked with spring, summer, autumn and winter—I spoke to some experts about why.

by Daisy Jones
May 29 2018, 2:30pm

Lead image by Esme Blegvad

There’s a Hatchie song called “Sugar & Spice” which opens with the line: “You bring with you the purest blue / The brightest blue.” The way she sings the word “bluuuuueee” sounds like the color. She elongates it, letting it pour from her mouth like a cold glass of water or a clear, infinite sky. We don’t always associate the color blue with summer—it can conjure up feelings of winter, or sadness too—but set to a backdrop of bright, shoegaze-y guitars and blissful melodies, the song fits neatly into the worlds of June, July and August. The subject matter might be bleak—about someone whose love is waning—but it’s delivery is pure, twinkling sunshine.

This isn’t the first time a song has been associated with a certain season. We do it all the time. As Lauren O’Neill wrote in her dissection of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” last week, “Artists and labels know this, and they’ll chase elusive ‘Song of the Summer’ status… contenders usually employ sunny instrumentation, and, often, they’ll capture the pop music zeitgeist in some way.” Songs evoke spring, autumn, and winter, too. There’s a glacial sparseness to Fever Ray’s “When I Grow Up,” for instance, and nobody can tell me that the well-known opening line “hello darkness my old friend…” doesn’t sound like trying to keep your depression warm by a crackling fire in the bleak depths of November. But why is this? How can a synth line sound golden? And what is it about “The Kiss” by The Cure that recalls the frosted-breath intensity of Scorpio season?

Terry Pettijohn, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Coastal Carolina University, tells me it’s not necessarily to do with what the songs evoke themselves, but with what we, as listeners, gravitate towards during those seasons—which then builds certain associations. “My research focuses on a theory we call the ‘Environmental Security Hypothesis’,” he says, referring to a study conducted last year, in which they examined the relationship between music preferences and environment, and discovered a correlation. “In the United States in summertime, people change their patterns; Children don’t have to go to school, people go on vacations, the weather is nicer, there’s more time for social interaction, people can relax and party. And so, the music that gives them the opportunity to incorporate that into their lives is going to be energetic, rhythmic and upbeat music, compared to the more reflective, complex things you’d prefer in the winter, when you might not be as sociable.”

In other words, when we’re happier and more energetic, we tend to gravitate towards music that reflects that. So in countries that have hot summers and cold winters, this translates into certain musical associations. Pettijohn tells me it’s not just about the actual sound, but the meanings behind lyrics as well. “We’ve analyzed the way lyrics have changed over time,” he explains, “and we prefer more meaningful, complex themes during tougher socio-economic times. So when times are good—for instance during summertime—usually there’s not as much meaningful content, and instead the lyrics are about having fun, socialising and drinking. It’s usually the fall or winter where you’d see more meaningful lyrics or important cultural themes being presented in songs. It’s also interesting that when people have these meaningful things to say, the music slows down at the same time, like in romantic ballads. So there’s this connection between upbeat music being less ‘serious,’ and more important themes slowing songs down.”

But the whole thing isn't as simple as that. It's not as if we're all pounding out nonstop techno tracks during August and then solely crying along to Elliott Smith six months later. That’s just scraping the surface of a phenomenon with multiple tendrils and connections that have developed over time. James Ewers, a lecturer and musicologist in the Popular Music department at Goldsmiths, thinks that we associate songs with certain seasons for a variety of reasons, and that none of them are rules set in stone, but rather conventions to be used and played with. “Naming a season in a song title seems to be a common device,” he explains, pointing to one example. “The songwriter is making ready-made associations for the listener. And then, in the songs themselves, you might get a sense of what time of year it might be, like whether they’re outside in a car, or else inside by a fire.”

Ewers also points to the marketing of a song, and how that can impact what season we associate a particular song with. “We hear about the ‘Song of the Summer,’ for instance. Then there are the music videos—what we see and how the artists are portrayed—which I think can be important when it comes to selling the context of that song. There’s also the way a song has been used in other media, like films.” But, he concludes, these are all just basic structures, and when we’re speaking about art, nothing is ever truly solid. “There are bound to be songs that break these moulds. With songwriting it’s all about how things are perceived. With some songs it’s good to be explicit, but with others it’s better not to be. There are no rules—just principles and conventions.”

So why do we associate certain songs with seasons? Why does “All Night” by Chance the Rapper, for instance, immediately conjure up the haze of weed smoke, the smell of sweat on skin and an impulsive desire to jump over the neighbour’s fence and crash their barbecue? Well, if anything I've been told is to go by, it's down to few factors, most of them just common sense: It was released in late May. The lyrics are about partying. The chorus is upbeat. The chords are optimistic. It makes you want to dance. And in seasonal countries, these are all things we gravitate towards when the sun is shining, when the world looks brighter, and our lives feel easier, pumped up on all that extra vitamin D. But also, rules are there to be broken, and if you feel most comfortable listening to some sludgy industrial goth shit with the curtains closed at the height of July, then you do you.

You can follow Daisy on Twitter and Esme on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.