Repetition: Pulls Us In and Pulls Us Together

Repetition: Pulls Us In and Pulls Us Together
 Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is associate professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Her research uses theoretical, behavioral, and neuro-imaging methodologies to investigate the dynamic, moment-to-moment experience of listeners without special musical training. She was also trained as a concert pianist. | Photo by Russell Cothren

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is associate professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Her research uses theoretical, behavioral, and neuro-imaging methodologies to investigate the dynamic, moment-to-moment experience of listeners without special musical training. She was also trained as a concert pianist. | Photo by Russell Cothren

Music is alive with repetition. Sounds within a piece repeat, and listeners anticipate and smile. People play the same piece of music over and over, not to drive their loved ones crazy, but to enjoy its ever-more-familiar shape and sound.

And then, there’s the dark side. There’s that scrap of sound that gets caught, the annoying earworm of notes and rhythm

that enters the brain and just won’t leave. How many of us have strode down the street to the tune “Pretty Woman,” a song we might hate, yet it somehow becomes our personal soundtrack on a sunny day?

In her book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explores the psychology of repetition in music, across time, style and cultures. Hers is the first in-depth study of repetitiveness in music, which she calls “at once entirely ordinary and entirely mysterious” and “so common as to seem almost invisible.”

“Music is a fundamentally human capacity,” Margulis says. “It’s present in all known cultures and important to intellectual, emotional, and social experience.”

Across cultures, repetition is an element that both pulls us into the musical experience and pulls us together as people. Not only is music a cultural universal, but so is musical repetition. Yet, musical repetition has been understudied, in part because of its ubiquity, and in part because of its negative associations. Historically, people have often looked at repetition as childlike, embarrassing, or nonsensical.

In her research, Margulis drew on a range of disciplines, including music theory, psycholinguistics, neuroscience and cognitive psychology, to examine how listeners perceive and respond to repetition. She worked with ethnomusicologists to understand the place of music and its repetitive features in cultures around the world.


In research in the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, Margulis has found that ordinary listeners have a high receptive competence. | Photo by Russell Cothren


Replication of standard tunes is not exclusive to our species—whales, gibbons, and half of the 900 known bird species produce sound sequences that repeat. Animal vocalizations develop within particular populations and regions and change with time and movement. They’re traditionally used for mating and learning rituals—where oral transmission and song evolution represents a demanding cognitive task.

Human children have a special passion for repetition, a passion that might have helped earn repetition a bad rap. Historically, repetition has often been linked with regression, childishness, and even insanity.

“It’s no surprise, then, that music scholars have often sought to emphasize other aspects of musical structure, largely neglecting the ubiquity of musical repetition,” Margulis says. “Perhaps it’s also no surprise that some contemporary composers have sought expressly to avoid repetitiveness in their music, aiming to reach not the everyday listener, but rather a subgroup of individuals with specialized formal training and particular listening attitudes.”

In Western culture today, musical expertise is often thought to be the property of people with formal training in performance and those who can play an instrument or sing at a comparatively high level.

“We’ve become so sure that we don’t know anything about music unless we’ve learned it in a university classroom,” Margulis says. “But how could you possibly be an avid listener, visit George’s Majestic Lounge twice a week, walk around wearing ear buds the rest of the time, and not become a musical expert? In reality there’s an incredible amount of expertise being gained by ordinary listeners.”

Relatively few studies have been done on ordinary listening. In her research in her Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, Margulis has found that ordinary listeners may still have a high receptive competence, whether or not they have learned the specialized vocabulary to describe what they hear. And, she has found that both trained and untrained listeners are specially moved by music that repeats.


thumbnailRepetition can drive attention to different aspects of the sound. In the same way that excessive repetition of a word can cause its meaning to dissolve and be replaced by a heightened awareness of the sounds that make up the word, repetition of a musical phrase can make new aspects of the sound available to hearing. Sometimes, it takes a few repetitions before this process can guide listeners to the most rewarding aspects of the music. Listeners are normally not explicitly aware of this shift in orientation but are aware mainly of its effect: the music seems more pleasurable.

Across multiple hearings, individual notes in a piece can come to seem so closely related to one another as to be inevitable. If someone hears the part of the familiar Muppets tune that goes “mahna-mahna,” it is almost impossible not to imagine it continuing “doo-doo-dee-doo-doo.” In these kinds of imagined continuations, there is a sense that the listener is actively predicting what will happen next and executing it internally. By generating a strong auditory image of what will happen in a piece of music before it happens, a listener is actively and creatively engaging with the sound, rather than passively receiving it.

Margulis brings evidence from neuroimaging to bear on the claim that repetition enables listeners to feel as if they are inhabiting external sounds. She contends that repetition encourages embodiment of music, which contributes to the pleasure listeners experience.

“Repetition makes it possible for us to experience a sense of expanded present, characterized not by the explicit knowledge that x will occur at time point y, but rather a déjà-vu-like sense of orientation and involvement,” Margulis writes.

Listeners, in other words, orient to time differently when they are hearing repeated music rather than hearing music for the first time. Work in Margulis’s lab has used behavioral methods to trace this shift in orientation.

“My claim is that part of what makes us feel that we’re a musical subject rather than a musical object is that we’re endlessly listening ahead, such that the sounds seem almost to execute our volition, after the fact,” she writes.

One common experience that represents a negative flipside of musical repetitiveness is the earworm. Songs that get stuck in your head often entail a short fragment of a tune, somewhere between 5 and 15 seconds long, that loops repetitively. There are very few cases of involuntary and non-pathological mental imagery that involve this degree of repetitiveness. Margulis explores the circuitry that underlies earworms in an effort to understand what distinguishes the mental representation of music from other types of mental representations.

New music technologies have allowed for the repetition of songs and sounds across various channels and media that enable listeners to become familiar with pieces prior to a live performance. These technologies have also created new capacities to loop and repeat specific sounds within a single production—such as a background track in pop or hip hop music. Margulis explores the way that these new technologies intersect with a basic psychological propensity toward musical repetition.


Repetition elicits involvement. It creates shared experiences between individuals during specific listening events, such as concerts, and through the recognition of songs that are widely popular or involved in rituals or traditions. Though a song may elicit different feelings and memories according to our distinct experiences, the fact that we can each identify the song is a function of repetition.

“Repeatability is how songs become the property of a group or a community instead of an individual, how they come to belong to a tradition, rather than to a moment,” Margulis says. “Sometimes it’s the kinds of cases where there’s not overt participation that can seem most powerful, mysterious, and bonding.”

She points to what participants describe as the “collective, transcendent experience” of Taizé music. Each year thousands of young people of all denominations make pilgrimages to the Communauté de Taizé in southern France. It is an ecumenical community of 100 monks who conduct religious services that emphasize repetitive song. In Taizé practice, a short musical phrase is repeated over and over by the congregation.

“The part that people describe as the most powerful is not the part where they are all singing and repeating the song together, but it’s the part where they stop,” Margulis writes. “Then they have this palpable feeling that the music is continuing to ‘sing them,’ as if while they sit silently they are actually being sung.”


Researchers in music have made a distinction between presentational and participatory styles. There are places where participation is not condoned and places where it is expected.

Think of a concert hall – a place constructed with an obvious performance space on the well-lit stage and obvious listening space in the darkened rows beyond – ordinarily held up as the epitome of a presentational context. Yet even there, people in seats don’t merely sit. Some tap feet, bob heads or wave fingers like little conductors’ batons. A few even furtively hum along.

In a straightforwardly participatory context, such as a bluegrass jam or around a campfire, participation is an expected part of the experience with clapping and singing along from everybody. Participatory music often relies especially strongly on repetition, which makes it easier for newcomers to learn how a piece goes and join in.

“What I would like to propose is that notions of participatory and presentational are imaginary poles, with substantial residue of the participatory clinging to much music that appears to be strictly presentational,” Margulis writes. “When these elements of the participatory occur in presentational styles, although they don’t ordinarily trigger overt participation, they elicit a kind of imagined, virtual presentation that can seem to powerfully involve an audience.”

Listeners’ involvement with a musical episode through memories and vivid mental imagery blurs the line between participation and performance. Repetition creates the potential for presentational music to also be participatory in its creation of a powerfully imagined involvement.

Ultimately, Margulis finds that repetition illuminates many aspects of what it means to listen musically.

Margulis writes, “repeated encounters with a particular music can alter what it is to listen to that piece, choreographing a different sense of subjectivity, facilitating an engagement with structural features at a different level than those initially apprehended, and assimilating the external sounds into a sense of a broadened, even transcendent self.”

On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, is published by Oxford University Press.

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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