One more time
July 9, 2014 7:38 PM   Subscribe

Why do we love repetition in music? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains how repetition and musicality work in our minds.
posted by gladly (31 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
posted by lbebber at 7:53 PM on July 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is that why I'm so keen on this work?
posted by symbioid at 7:53 PM on July 9, 2014

Even if you don't read the article, play the two Sound Demo tracks. It's an amazing effect / illusion / brain-game.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:55 PM on July 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Well, there is the theory of the Möbius...
posted by mubba at 7:59 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Radiolab did a segment about the behave so strangely effect and musical perception.
posted by moonmilk at 8:01 PM on July 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

God I love the "mere exposure effect". From the article:
"Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening..."
And television viewing; many times I've been lukewarm about a show or even disliked it and been able to "get into it" just be hanging in there and watching week after week.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:25 PM on July 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Being as brains (at least in vertebrates) are huge pattern matching engines this shouldn't be a surprise. Evolutionarily speaking, the better you are a finding a pattern to your food or your mate, the more likely you were to reproduce. I would be surprised if people weren't twigged to find patterns.

What's fascinating to me when the pattern matching goes awry and finds signal where there should be noise - Chemtrails and Knights Templar and secret lizard governments...
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:31 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This dovetails nicely with my theory of why baroque opera* is actually far more accessible than later forms like bel canto... the repeats! It doesn't matter if you've never heard Handel before, you'll have heard some of him twice or three times over before the opera is out, and the pleasure of pattern recognition should kick in with each repetition of the motif. So no waiting for that one blockbuster aria everyone knows to get that frisson of knowingness.

*or as my dad calls them, "your harpsichord operas".
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:38 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why do we love repetition in music?

Ask Philip Glass?
posted by mazola at 8:39 PM on July 9, 2014

Holy crap! I used to work with her husband!
posted by josher71 at 9:24 PM on July 9, 2014

Sometimes behave so strangely indeed.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:28 PM on July 9, 2014

Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent. A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second.
This reminded me of one of my favorite Miles Davis stories:

"Bird told me, when I was real young, and just getting out of Juilliard, that if you play something that seems to be wrong, play it again, then play the same thing a third time. Then Bird gave a great smile and said, 'Then they'll think that you meant it.'"
posted by No-sword at 9:43 PM on July 9, 2014 [13 favorites]

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
― John Cage
posted by moonmilk at 10:12 PM on July 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is that why I'm so keen on this work?

There are likely a few other reasons too.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:43 PM on July 9, 2014

I had to, like open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.
posted by iotic at 11:33 PM on July 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Public Radio Remix has these segments which work on the speech-to-song spectrum... They open with a bit of an interview or something, and they progress along and then they start repeating a phrase from the spoken word over and over, and then instruments come in under the speech echoing the "notes" spoken in that phrase, and then they are repeated, and then slowly the words fade out while more layers of music fade in until it's this instrumental melody based on the rhythm and pitches spoken, but now it's just music.

The first couple of these I heard I felt were irritating, but after that they were uncanny and delightful.

So, the article gets bonus points for talking about that whole thing.

The article also gets a LOT of points taken away for not ONCE mentioning minimalist music (referred to more than once already) and how that works.

Minimalism uses repetition but also uses slow evolution and change, so you are listening to the same thing over and over but it isn't ALWAYS the same thing, so you get the familiarity of repetition combined with the Interest Of The New, and it builds nicely into a space where you are constantly checking what you heard before against what you heard previously, and you thrill in the changes while at the same time relaxing into the sameness.

So, interesting article, but truly lacking in some very important ways.
posted by hippybear at 12:17 AM on July 10, 2014

Why do we love repetition in music? Because it rocks!
posted by Pudhoho at 12:30 AM on July 10, 2014

Here's a great track by Regurgitator - I Like Repetitive Music:
posted by wilful at 4:27 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is interesting but music is far more than merely repetition. It is also Tone. Tone is relative of course, and comes into being in the context of a phrase as it moves through time. But the proportions between tones in a key do not change. You can't establish a tonic without returning to it (or pointing at it by recognizably returning to notes in a scale that desire that return) but mere return doesn't necessarily establish a satisfying tonic without the proper relationship between the other notes you are sliding through.

Point being, you can't just repeat anything. Pick a different section of the sentence that "Sometimes behave so strangely" comes from and it would just seem like mere noise. Or, more certainly, choose to repeat something that isn't language--which itself has inherent tonality, based on the natural proportions of musical notes--and music will not necessarily emerge.

You can do this experiment yourself with the awesome defunct iphone app RJDJ.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:29 AM on July 10, 2014

As Mark E Smith put it -

Cos we dig
Cos we dig
We dig
We dig repetition
We dig repetition
We've repetition in the music
And we're never going to lose it.
This is the three R's
The three R's:
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
posted by iotic at 4:53 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Focusing on repetition in music is pretty small beer. What about the balance between familiarity and surprise we need in good music? Familiarity is generated not by mere repetition, but by adhering to general harmonic (and to a lesser degree - especially in Western music - melody) conventions: e.g. the tension/resolution effect, one which is actually parallel to the surprise/familiarity dichotomy. Repetition is only the grossest cause of familiarity.
posted by kozad at 6:53 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The advent of headphones in my meager existence was a godsend, in that I could indulge the tic in my nature that I suspect is why drugs, alcohol, fast cars, and loose men never had much sway in my life.

I love repetitive music and I love repeating repetitive music.

This was a horror to my family while I was growing up, when I would put Reich's "Four Organs" on my Soundesign turntable with the autorepeat switch and listen to it, over and over, as I played happily in the floating temporary autonomous zone of my room. Sometimes the music itself was repetitive, and sometimes it was the repetition of replay, like when I'd listen to the Beatles over and over.

My father made it a point to interrupt almost every listen of Reich by cracking the door and wryly saying "Son, I think your record's stuck," which was almost never true.

This, too, was repetitive in a highly satisfying way.

When I took piano lessons, my stumbling attempts to master simplified Gershwin were never as satisfying as just being alone in the house with the piano, wedging a wooden spoon in the sustain pedal to keep the dampers off the strings, and just slowly drumming through the notes of a single chord, varying the velocity of each strike just ever so slightly, just letting the strings ring and sing and crossmodulate in the resonant spaces inside the piano.

This all earned me a pair of expensive German headphones that still sound clear and powerful and lovely thirty-five years later.

Last year, as my job was becoming intolerable and I was battling the gloom of the kind of repetition that wasn't a source of joy, I drove to Brattleboro, Vermont for my first same sex wedding of two dear old friends whose engagement had lasted as long as I'd had my expensive German headphones.

I packed my old pickup truck, printed out maps and directions for my trip and the side trips I might make, and loaded songs, stories, and podcasts onto four separate MP3 players out of my crawling fear of local radio and Excellence In Broadcasting, and set out on a long journey fraught with all the risks of being an inwardly-focused and fretsome individual in the midst of a bad work scene and a complete and enduring absence of any sort of intimate relationship.

I listened to some of my radio dramas and the usual travel-time Jean Shepherd redux, but mostly, I listened to the same song, over and over and over, for almost fourteen hundred miles of travel and side trips, all off the beaten path, because highways are the one kind of repetitive habit I can't bear. The towns came and went, rivers were crossed and recrossed, hills and mountains rose and fell and I napped in the bed of my truck in the Delaware Water Gap and took in the sweet green of these old, old states in the narrow band of the world that is always home.

As I lumbered up a dusty farm track in my old truck, with my pants laid across the bench seat beside me, as not to wrinkle before the moment of formality, I listened to the same song for the hundredth time, singing along for the hundredth time, feeling nervous and uncomfortable about wearing binding fancy clothes in public for the hundredth time, and wondered, also for the hundredth time on that trip, if I was destined to be lonesome, but the same song for the hundredth time still lit up the lines and sent sparks down little-used pathways and everything would be just fine—right now, tomorrow, and forever.

That's the thing, that moment of okayness, like the flush of drugs swirling in the bloodstream, the way that repetition rewards desire and opens up the senses for all the non-repetition that's curling through the van der Rohe architecture of structure like strands of blue smoke carrying exotic scents of spices sublimating to carbon in a flame. I climb into the geodesic cages of nesting rhythms and structures swinging in constant loops like an orrery on 1:1 scale, and everywhere there is order and chaos that is also order, but seen from the wrong vantage points, and it's all around me.

Thing is, in those moments, I'm not so much a slave to the rhythm as I am freed by it.

Without the song, there is just the noise.
posted by sonascope at 6:55 AM on July 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

Why do we love repetition in music?

Ask Philip Glass?
posted by Wolfdog at 8:30 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am sitting in a room.
posted by gucci mane at 3:28 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Holy crap! I used to work with her husband!
posted by benito.strauss at 3:45 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes behave so strangely indeed.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:12 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why do we love repetition in music?

Ask Philip Glass?
posted by Wolfdog at 8:35 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why do we love repetition in music?

Ask Philip Glass?

posted by Wolfdog at 6:26 PM on July 13, 2014

I'm very glad repetition has been so useful and beautiful to sonascope so as to inspire the post above. Thank you.

I'm just the reverse. My pattern sensitivity is either high or low, I can't tell which. That radiolab bit caused me physical pain1. Repetitive music drives me nuts2. I couldn't listen to the same song over and over again3.

1. the first time I heard it
2. except when I love it to bits
3. and yet, sometimes, I have
posted by wobh at 8:33 PM on July 13, 2014

metachat classic:

Knock knock!
Who's there?
Steve Reich
Steve Reich who?

So you think electronic music is boring? You think, It's stupid? You think it's repetitive? Well, it is rep-repetitive

Great article, thanks gladly!

Here is the song(s) that I have been listening to on repeat for the last few days. Come for the repetitive melodies, stay for the unbelievable sleeves!
posted by asok at 6:35 AM on July 22, 2014

Ask Philip Glass?
posted by Wolfdog at 12:52 PM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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