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Repetition in Music: Why We Can’t Get Enough of It

No matter how patient one can be, it can be hard to keep listening to a friend recount their day as many times as the thematic phrases reiterate themselves in Beethoven’s 33 variations on a Waltz by A. Diabelli, Op120. Nevertheless, listeners often find themselves gripped by an irresistible urge to pounce on the next repetition of ‘Shake it off, shake it off, oh-oh’ or sing to the end from ‘Land of hope and glory’ no matter how many times they have done so. As Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most influential 20th century composers, once said, "Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition." It is indeed intriguing how repetition, nowadays often dismissed as a symptom of rudimentary vocabulary or a dearth of creativity in writing, is not only tolerated but sought after in musical expression.

Repetition and development of motifs in La Cucaracha, a popular Mexican folk song.

The prevalence of repetition in music across cultures comes hand in hand with how repetitive utterance musicalises. When a sentence is repeated too many times, one stops paying attention to its meaning and perceives it as a sound sequence with a unique beat pattern and cadence. This case of ‘semantic satiation’ (Jakobovits, 1967) was perfectly demonstrated by Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, where Reich truncated and looped the recorded sentence 'It's gonna rain' to different rhythms to produce something that is nonsensical but musical. In other words, repetition is an important tool to orient and reorient listeners’ attention to the different forms of data encoded in sounds; from sematic meaning to phonemic style, which is then interpreted as upbeat or ominous, cathartic or emotive based on cultural conventions.

Steve Reich in the 1970s

More importantly, it is through the recurrence of sound structures that music fulfils its participatory characteristic and transcends the boundary between the musicians and the audience. This is not a trifling observation, albeit an apparent one. The exclusivity of formal music literacy leaves the majority of the population only on the receiving end of a performance. In order to be moved by a piece of music, one must first be able to move along with the tune which is mostly only heard and not read or played out. This requires repeat exposure to a certain musical phrase, for music can only be perceived in its passing and only its reiterations can make a listener learn the tune by heart.

Then the magic happens. Nothing beats the euphoric satisfaction of hearing the last ‘Ooh-oh-oh-oh-oh’ in Billie Eilish’s I Love You exactly like we know it. It is this instant affirmation of one's prediction that produces an addictive sense of security, a feeling that one is not only led by but also leading the trajectory of the melody. As each audience member thus anticipates, hears, and reacts to the same music at the same time, the music experience also becomes shareable and social. Familiar tunes, like Christmas jingles or wedding hymns, become associated with traditions, which are essentially the repetition of rituals (Wulf, 2020). Tellingly, identities can be seen as collections of repeated individual or societal actions.

A wall painting in the tomb of Rekhmire showing women playing the harp, lute and tambourine at important events. 18th Egyptian dynasty, 1425BC, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, West Thebes.

Human’s unique appreciation of repetitions in and of music as compared to their disdain of it in writing also suggests that one searches for and interprets a different mode of expression and reasoning through music as compared to words. Speech relays a semantic message that can be independent from the words that convey it. One does not have to recount a story word by word to make another person understand the gist of it, and they can retain this information in their memory and relay it to someone else in their own words. Music, by contrast, engages verbatim memory more heavily (Calvert, 2001). This means listeners' understanding and retention of a piece of music relies on how it is played – pitch, melody, rhythm, tempo, etc. Therefore, music is not merely a medium of expressing an idea; its verbatim content is precisely the idea itself (Margulis, 2013). It is exactly this property that draws the listeners’ attention to the texture of music, recognising motifs and registering moods in its continuous passage. Grasping the expressive meaning of a piece of music requires tapping into each layer of its subtlety with each replay, and the more complex the piece is, the harder it is to retain the music with an exactitude after it finishes playing. The time that has borne a piece of music to the past cannot be brought back to the present; a music meaning cannot be retold until it is accurately replayed.

Paradoxically, such replays are rarely exact. From the performance point of view, no two notes can be played exactly the same way. The contingency of time means that what went before, impacts how one perceives what comes next – music is only delivered in motion, so one can never be at the same spot again (Adès & Service, 2018). This means the second time that a theme is reiterated is both expressed and perceived at least slightly differently, even if the music notations are the same. Music lays bare the scary but exciting truth that each moment can only be lived exactly once. A semblance of constancy heightens one's sensitivity and opens one's appetite for change, luring vulnerabilities out into the open to be played with by the unexpected variations that transform the familiar. A good case in point would be the second movement of Schubert’s A major piano sonata, D959, where the pensive opening is reintroduced in the ending but with a despairing bitterness after a sequence of agitation and exasperation.

Playing a favourite song on repeat, but one might find something new in it each time.

Nevertheless, any semblance of familiarity in a piece of music offers a predictability that reassures and flatters. More notably, mere re-exposure can also engender enjoyment because the tune has been so deeply burrowed into their mental grooves that the ease to follow it, consciously or subconsciously, increases no matter whether the audience ‘liked’ the song in the first place. Rehearing familiar music triggers not only the motor planning center in the brain (Janata, 2009), but also the limbic and paralimbic sections which are in charge of emotions (Pereira et al., 2011). This is how humans come to inhabit the external through internal projections and responses. Listeners embody familiar music through associating it with memories, feelings, and movements. They find themselves in it as they let it fill them up, and with the replays and repeats, each finds a timeless presence in the collective consciousness of all those who have been touched by music.

Bibliographical Sources

Adès, Thomas ,& Service, Tom. (2012). Thomas Adès: Full of noises: Conversations with Tom Service. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Calvert, S. L. (2001). Impact of televised songs on children’s and young adults’ memory of educational content. Media Psychology, 3(4), 325–342.

Jakobovits, L. A. (1967). Semantic Satiation and Cognitive Dynamics. The Journal of Special Education, 2(1), 35–44.

Janata, P. (2009). Music and the self. Music that works: Contributions of biology, neurophysiology, psychology, sociology, medicine and musicology (pp. 131–141).

Krumhansl, C. L. (2010). Plink: ‘Thin Slices’ of Music. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27(5), 337–354.

Margulis, E. H. (2013). Repetition and Emotive Communication in Music Versus Speech. Frontiers in Psychology, 4.

Pereira, C. S., Teixeira, J., Figueiredo, P., Xavier, J., Castro, S. L., & Brattico, E. (2011). Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters. PLOS ONE, 6(11), e27241.

Wulf, C. (2020). The Movement of Repetition: Incorporation through Mimetic, Ritual and Imaginative Movements. Gestalt Theory, 42, 87–100.

Visual Sources

1 comentario

Celena Yuan
Celena Yuan
09 ago 2022

Very well written article with an in depth analysis on the power of music repetition. It was very interesting learning about the psychological implications of different sound sequences. Music has been ingrained in human culture since pre-historic times, and as a result, it is something I believe many of us often take for granted in our daily lives. This article is a beautiful reflection of this powerful force that drives universal communication and understanding. I look forward to reading your next piece!

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Tanfei Li

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