The Hypnotic Power of Repetition in Music

Repetition and music are so intimately linked that their relationship seems almost invisible. While characterizing a piece of music as “repetitive” still carries a negative connotation (akin to describing it as “boring” or “monotonous”) repetition is an element of almost every piece of music in nearly every genre. In fact, composers that don’t use repetition must go out of their way to do so. Pick a song composed in the last 100 years and you are almost guaranteed to find passages that come up again and again — usually choruses or refrains. Sometimes they vary slightly; other times they are reproduced note for note, timbre for timbre. As the author and music scholar Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis so eloquently puts it, repetition in music is both, “entirely ordinary and entirely mysterious.”

No other art form so passionately embraces repetition as music. If a writer were to repeat a phrase or a paragraph over and over throughout an essay, one might think he was either mad, or he was trying to create a type of poetic/musical resonance. If a painter or sculptor were to repeat a work over and over, critics might have the same reaction to her work. Yet in music, repetition is expected — encouraged even.

Music is repetitive on many levels. As mentioned, the structure of music is often repetitive, but so is the way in which we consume it. Think about the moment you fall in love with a song. You listen to that track over and over again over the course of hours, weeks, or months. The same exact song, the same exact rendition, the same composition of notes with all the same instruments and treatments — and we download it or stream it or return the needle to the starting groove again and again. Very often, the music plays inside our heads when we stop listening to it — sometimes to our annoyance.

The very act of repeating a sound, even if it’s a common, non-musical sound, lifts it from its mundane or expected context and makes it musical. Steve Reich’s composition, “It’s Gonna Rain” proves exactly that. Taking a sample of a street preacher and repeating one small phrase over and over, he creates a hypnotic texture that soon resembles music.

Electronic producers have often done something similar with sound effects and non-musical sounds. Take for example, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” which takes gunshot and cash register sound effects and weaves them into a staccato drum beat.

Why Repetition is Implicit to Music

Repetition is so built in to the way in which we process music that human brains have trouble comprehending music without it. Suppose we want to analyze the third act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We could easily drill down and read just that one piece of the play, or even one of the scenes, or a piece of one of the monologues, and still gain a fairly high level of intelligibility about the author’s intent.

But music is very different. We can’t really cut up a piece of music in the same way and analyze it with the same level of understanding. Music is very much a linear medium in that way. If you wanted to analyze the third phrase of “Amazing Grace,” for example, it would be very difficult to do without starting from the beginning of the song. You need to hear it from the beginning to be able to process it.

You could say that music exists “in motion,” and therefore we need to hear pieces of it over and over to be able to understand and process them. This may be one of the strongest reasons for why composers choose to return to the same passage of music or sequence of notes over and over during the course of one composition. Repetition allows us as listeners to hear that passage again, and with another exposure, process it within a slightly different context, or at the very least, at a different point in time. If we like it, we may begin to understand the feeling behind the notes, or begin to (unintentionally) commit it to memory. As the composer and music theorist Arnold Schoenberg once said, “intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition.”

Another reason why repetition is so prevalent in music is dictated by the medium itself. In an essay, a writer might make a point, back it up with a few facts or quotes, and then restate the main point again with different words.

In speech and writing, words replicate or refer to meaning. In music, sounds are the meaning.

With this in mind, it makes sense that a theme or motif might re-appear again and again in a piece of music, either in the same exact format, or expressed with slightly different instrumentation or feeling.

How the Brain Processes Repetition

When something repeats over and over, especially music, an interesting phenomenon takes place in our brains. As Margulis points out in her book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but it does change something in the mind that contemplates it. In this sense, it’s a phenomenon well suited to exposing the mechanism of perception and how perception colors an experience beyond the elements that make up its obvious characteristics.

Repetition opens up one moment, one set period of time, or one experience into an infinite kaleidoscope of details and perceptions.

This phenomenon is particularly easy to recognize in genres within the electronic dance music (EDM) umbrella. Persistent looping of dense material with changing timbres provides manifold pathways for listeners to follow without predetermining their focus. In this manner, listeners are welcome to create their own paths of attention, leading to ever deeper explorations upon repeat listens.

L.M. Garcia makes a similar argument in his article, “On and On: Repetition as Process and Pleasure in Electronic Dance Music.

“The use of unresolved grouping dissonances in EDM does not necessarily pose an irresolvable perceptual problem for the listener. Instead, he forwards a mode of listening whereby a listener can shift focus between dissonant layers, granting perceptual primacy to one grouping at one moment, and to another at the next. I think that this begins to explain how the repetition of seemingly short musical units can generate pleasure over extended periods. I believe that most EDM tracks offer many perceptual ‘points of attention,’ whether implied in minimalist textures or fully fleshed out in thicker ones. Thus, looping allows the listener to plot pathways between these points of attention, mapping out a landscape of shifting creation pleasure while prolonging the process pleasure of an ever-changing same.”

It also bears mentioning that our brains are very much complicit in this act of perceiving something as a loop than we may at first admit. On a granular level, there are no true repetitions. Even if a sequence is reproduced over and over again in exact duplication, the identical passages occur at different points in time and are made up of different atoms. But their repetition, Margulis argues, makes our minds perceive them, “not as a series of undifferentiated hammer strokes, but rather like a hierarchically unfolding series of projections and realizations.”

The Ghost in the Machine

One cannot ignore the fact that electronic music was born from machines that were built to repeat musical phrases over and over again. It only takes a few minutes of playing with a drum machine, sequencer, or music making app to realize the most natural thing for these instruments to do it repeat themselves. This is certainly a factor in the high prevalence of repetition observable in electronic music genres.

Repetition in Animal Song

As a final point, it bears mentioning that repetition in music is not strictly confined to the human species. In fact, repetition is one of the characteristics scientists use to identify animal vocalizations as music. We are all familiar with hearing bird songs that clearly repeat themselves, either in quick succession or after a complex series of vocalizations.

Repetition is also prevalent in whale and dolphin songs. As whales migrate over the course of a year, utterances and phrases may repeat by region. Over time, these songs mutate, but entropy decreases over the course of a season until their songs settle into canonical versions.

Humpback whales produce a series of repetitious sounds at varying frequencies that marine biologist Philip Clapham describes as, “probably the most complex in the animal kingdom.” Scientists believe whale songs could be their story, mnemonic devices, or perhaps strategies for coping with oral transmission of information.

Whatever it is, it’s clear that other species of animals use repetition to express something we describe as musical. Perhaps they use it for the same reason human composers employ repetition — for the pure joy and pleasure of creating a hypnotic rhythm.

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