Making Sense of Music Through Repetitition


Short Talks From The Hill” is a podcast highlighting research and scholarly work across the University of Arkansas campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work. In this episode, Elizabeth Margulis, professor of music and director of the Music Cognition Lab in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Science, discusses how we make sense of music through repetition.

Elizabeth Margulis

Elizabeth Margulis: Today, I want to talk about repetition in music. Specifically, how does repetition help define music?

I believe that when we hear something as music, we aren’t so much listening to it as we are listening along with it. In other words, part of what of it means to listen to something musically is to participate imaginatively. Repetition is one of the key elements that enables us to enter into this special relationship with sound.

For many years now, researchers have demonstrated that people tend to prefer things they’ve been exposed to before. Music is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. It’s no secret that tunes – or at least snippets of them – get stuck in our heads and seem to loop again and again, whether we like them or not.

My research, which I talk about in On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, a book published in 2014, helps explain how and why this happens.

It’s important to note that musical situations that expressly call for broad involvement generally feature even more repetition. Think of hymns or gospel songs sung in church, how often the congregation is called upon to sing a single phrase back. Even in the many ordinary musical situations that don’t expressly call for participation – listening to the radio while driving, for example – people still get involved in ways that range from subtle swaying to air guitar to full-voiced singing along.

In the Music Cognition Lab, we did some research using rondos, a repetitive kind of musical composition that was popular in the late 18th century. We chose classical compositions, in part, because they provided very little opportunity for overt audience participation. In our study, we found that people who had heard classical rondos featuring exact repetition reported more of a tendency to tap or sing along than those who had heard rondos with variation.  

You may wonder, can music exist without repetition? Sure. Over the past century, partly in response to the rise of recording technologies, a number of composers began to expressly avoid repetitiveness in their work.

In a recent study, we played samples of this sort of music, written by renowned 20th-century composers like Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter, to college undergraduates with no special training or experience in contemporary art music. Unbeknownst to these participants, some of the excerpts had been digitally altered. For these altered excerpts, we selected segments that were convenient to crop, and extracted and reinserted them so that the excerpts now featured a brute kind of literal repetition.

The altered excerpts should have been fairly cringeworthy. After all, the originals were written by some of the most celebrated composers of recent times, and the altered versions were spliced together without regard to aesthetic effect. But this wasn’t the case at all. Listeners consistently rated the altered excerpts as more enjoyable, more interesting, and – most tellingly – more likely to have been composed by a human artist rather than randomly generated by a computer.

When I presented these findings to an audience that was uncommonly well-versed in these repertoires, some people were surprised to find that the doctored versions possessed an elevated degree of persuasiveness – even to them, and even when they knew what they were hearing. This study revealed something about the way listeners make sense of music. Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent. A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time sounds purposefully shaped and communicative the second.

A separate study tested whether repetition could also make snippets of music sound more musical. We generated random sequences of notes and presented them to listeners in one of two conditions: original or looped. In the looped condition, the random sequence played not once but six times in a row. At the start of the study, people listened to the sequences play automatically, one after the other. Some were in their original form and some were looped. It varied from participant to participant which sequence was heard in what form. Later, the study participants heard each random sequence individually – once only, without repeats – and then rated how musical it sounded.

They had heard enough sequences that they all tended to blend together; the participants didn’t explicitly remember which segments they’d heard as loops, or even whether they’d previously heard the sequence at all. Nevertheless, they consistently found the sequences to be more musical when they’d heard them in looped form. Even without the aid of explicit memory, the repetitions of the random sequences had imbued them with a sense of musicality. In other words, it seems that the brute force of repetition can work to musicalize sequences of sounds, triggering a profound shift in the way we hear them.Bottom of Form

By tracing and retracing a path through musical space, repetition makes a sequence of sounds seem less like an objective presentation of content and more like a kind of tug that’s pulling you along. It captures the brain’s sequencing circuitry that makes music feel like something you do rather than something you perceive. This sense of identification we have with music, of listening with it rather than to it, so definitional to what we think about as music, owes a lot to repeated exposure.

Music for Short Talks from the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas.  For more information and additional podcasts go to the home of research news at the University of Arkansas. 



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