By Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis
How much repetition is too much repetition? How high would the number of plays of your favorite track on iTunes have to climb before you found it embarrassing? How many times could a song repeat the chorus before you stopped singing along and starting eyeing the radio suspiciously? And why does musical repetition often lead to bliss instead of exhaustion?
Music is repetitive, but just how repetitive remains a somewhat murky question. Repetition is found in the music itself, but also in your listening behavior. Your favorite track might feature a chorus that repeats several times, but you might also choose to play and replay this already repetitive track ad nauseam. David Huron estimates that more than 90% of the music people hear is music they’ve heard before. Victor Zuckerkandl explains:
Music can never have enough of saying over again what has already been said, not once or twice, but dozens of times; hardly does a section, which consists largely of repetition, come to an end, before the whole story is happily told all over again.
This kind of repetition is so common in music that most of the time we don’t even notice it. But if I recounted the same story to you even twice, let alone 15 times, you’d start avoiding me in the hallways. Although cognitive scientists have often looked to music and language as comparative cases with intriguing similarities, repetition marks a clear point of divergence: we embrace it in one domain and shun it in the other.
But even musical repetitiveness has its limits. The band the National tested them when performing the song “Sorrow” 105 times in a row as part of an installation at MoMA PS1 in New York. How do we decide that enough is enough? It turns out we’re quite good at calibrating our own sensibilities. Toddlers, for example, will often insist on being read the same story night after night. To parents, this can seem counterproductive. In order to learn new words, shouldn’t they need to hear them in a variety of different contexts, so they’re equipped to eventually abstract their meaning?
University of Sussex psychologist Jennifer Horst and colleagues have shown, contrary to this adult intuition, that repetitions of the same story are precisely what toddlers need. Over the course of a week, three-year-olds heard a novel word the same number of times either within repeated tellings of the same story, or different tellings of different stories. Children subjected to what might seem an unendurable amount of repetition for an adult actually learned better. The toddlers know what they need.
Similarly, recent research in my lab has shown that the adult proclivity for musical repetition is no fluke. When repetition was added to pieces of challenging contemporary art music that typically eschew it, everyday listeners found the music more enjoyable and more interesting. What’s more, they even found the repetitive music more likely to have been crafted by a human artist than randomly generated by a computer.
When people heard pieces of music featuring either exact repetition or varied repetition, they found themselves more likely to tap or sing along when the repetition was exact. Repetitiveness increased their kinesthetic engagement with the sound. In another study, listening to music repeatedly caused listeners to shift their attention to different structural levels in the piece, revealing new and rewarding aspects of the music that had been inaccessible on first hearing.
Carlos Silva Pereira at the University of Porto used neuroimaging to reveal that the circuitry underlying emotional response was more active for music that had been repeated. This effect held for music that participants reported liking and for music that participants reported disliking. In other words, musical repetition can engage us even against our will.
When we hit that button to put a track on repeat, we’re doing what we need to do for the sound to carry us to that distinct brand of bliss only music can afford. Just don’t take it too far, or you’ll be left with a hard-to-squash earworm and a longstanding aversion to the chorus.
Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis directs the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. She is the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. Her research uses theoretical, behavioral, and neuroimaging methodologies to investigate the dynamic, moment-to-moment experience of listeners without special musical training. She was also trained as a concert pianist.