Why is So Much Music Based on Repetition?

Just about every form of music relies on passages repeating themselves over and over again. Riffs, beats, choruses, hooks–it’s been this way…well, forever. Why? The Guardian tries to answer this question:

Repetition is a musical fundamental that connects every culture on Earth. And it’s not just the songs, symphonies or operas we love that are so often built on patterns that repeat – drumbeats, rhythms, melodies, harmonic cycles – it’s also that we love to listen to the same music, the same recording, again and again. And instead of being bored by the fact that we know that particular moment of achingly expressive vibrato is coming up on Billie Holliday’s recording of Summertime; or that the fugue in the Kyrie from Bach’s B-minor Mass is going to resolve in its final bar so radiantly into the major key from the minor; or that, despite our fondest hopes, Violetta is always going to die to those morbidly delicious strains of Verdi’sLa Traviata, our enjoyment increases the more we hear them. Far from diluting our pleasure, repeating them only seems to amplify our involvement in these musical experiences.

It’s an odd phenomenon that has little crossover in other art forms. As Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis’s work has revealed in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, her book on precisely this phenomenon, it’s certainly not the same with words. If you say a phrase – a collection of words – over and over again it starts to become simply a collection of sounds rather than “meaning” anything. (Gertrude Stein and other avant garde writers made a new kind of literature from this fertile borderland where words are carriers of sound instead of signifiers of meaning.) It’s called “semantic satiation” – that moment when a phrase is overloaded through so much repetition that it slips out of the meaning-processing part of our brains.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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