Why do we listen to the same music over and over
Why do we listen to the same music over and over

We all know this state when the song literally gets stuck in the head. Moreover, it does not have to be good: sometimes we cannot get out of our minds a song that is popular, but we subjectively don’t like it. Why is that? It's all about the impact of repetition, and its ability to make us remember or participate is just a small part of what is happening.

We are publishing a translation of an article by Elizabeth Helmut Margulis, director of the Musical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Arkansas and a pianist who understands this phenomenon based on various studies.

What is music? There is no end to the list of philosophers who have thought about this, nevertheless, judgments about musicality are obviously malleable. A new club tune, nasty at first, can become very enjoyable after a few rounds of listening.

Place the person who is most apathetic to music in the room where the musician is rehearsing before a solo concert of contemporary music, and he will leave, whistling the piece. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical means of musicalization. So instead of asking, "What is music?" - it would be easier for us to ask: "What do we hear as music?"

According to most psychologists, people prefer what they are familiar with, at least from the time when Robert Zayontsfirst demonstrated "Familiarity with the object"in the 1960s. Whether it's figures, pictures, or melodies, people report that the second or third time they watch or listen to them, they start to like them more. And it seems that people incorrectly attribute the increased fluency of their perception not to previous experience, but to some quality of the object itself.


Instead of thinking, “I've seen this triangle before, so I like it,” they seem to be thinking, “Gee, I love this triangle. It makes me feel smart. " The effect extends to listening to music, but there has been a growing body of evidence recently that the special role of repetition in music has something to do with more than the simple dating effect.

To begin with, there is a huge amount of repetitive music, it is created by cultures around the world. Ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettle from the University of Illinois considers repetition to be one of the few musical universals known to characterize music around the world. Radio hits around the world often include a chorus that is played multiple times, and people listen to these already repeated songs over and over again.

According to the musicologist David Huron from Ohio State University, more than 90% of the time spent listening to music, people actually hear the passages that they have already listened to before. The play counter in a wide variety of music applications shows how often we listen to our favorite tracks. And if that's not enough, the tunes that get stuck in our heads also seem to always be the same.

In short, repetition is a strikingly common feature of music, both real and imagined.

In fact, repetition is so closely related to musicality that its use can dramatically transform apparently non-musical material into song. Psychologist Diana Deutschfrom the University of California at San Diego found a particularly striking example - the illusion of converting speech into song… The illusion begins with an ordinary oral utterance, then one part of it, just a few words, is looped several times, and, finally, the original recording is once again presented entirely in the form of an oral utterance.

This time, when the listener comes to a looping phrase, he gets the impression that the speaker has suddenly switched to singing, much like the characters of Disney cartoons do. (You can listen to audio snippets of the illusion in the original article. - Ed.)

This transformation is truly unusual. We think that listening to someone speaking and listening to someone singing are different things that differ in the objective characteristics of the sound itself, which seems obvious. But the illusion of converting speech into song shows that the same sequence of sounds can appear to be either speech or music, depending on whether it repeats itself.

The illusion demonstrates what it means to "hear something" in a musical sense. "Musicalizing" shifts your attention from the meaning of the words to the outline of the passage (patterns of high and low frequencies) and its rhythms (patterns of short and long durations), and even stimulates you to start humming or tapping out a rhythm.

Repetition is the key to the participatory aspect of music. My own laboratory at the University of Arkansas did a little research using rondo, a repetitive musical composition that was especially popular in the late 17th century. In our study, people who heard a classic rondo with precise repetition reported a greater tendency to beat or sing along than those who heard a rondo with a slight change in the chorus.


On the other hand, classical rondos provide very few opportunities for audience participation, but it is noteworthy that musical situations that clearly require widespread human participation usually involve even more repetition: think about how many times the same phrase is sung in church services. Even in many ordinary musical situations that do not require direct participation (for example, listening to the radio while driving a car), people still participate in the process in every possible way: from light swaying to the beat to full-voiced singing.

In a separate study in my laboratory, it was tested whether repetition can make pieces of music more musical. We generated random sequences of notes and presented them to listeners in one of two formats: original or looped.

In a looped state, a random sequence is played not once, but six times in a row. At the beginning of the study, people listened to sequences that played automatically, one after the other, some of them in their original form, and some of them in loops. Subjects later listened to each random sequence separately, only once, without repetitions, and then rated how musical it sounded.

In general, people listened to a lot of sequences, and they all tried to merge in their minds together: the subjects did not clearly remember which segments they heard as repetitions and whether they had heard them before in principle. Nonetheless, the sequences presented in a looping form, they invariably found more musical. Even without the aid of explicit memory, the repetition of random sequences endowed them with a sense of musicality. Regardless of the composite material, it seems like the brute force of repetition can musicalize sequences of sounds, causing a profound shift in the way we hear them.

To understand how this process works, you can run a very simple experiment. Ask a friend to choose a word and speak it to you for a couple of minutes. Gradually, you will begin to feel a curious detachment between sounds and their meaning - this is the so-called esemantic saturation effect, first documented over 100 years ago. As the meaning of a word becomes less and less accessible, some aspects of the sound become more noticeable - for example, the peculiarities of pronunciation, the repetition of a particular letter, the abrupt ending of the last syllable. The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible.

Anthropologists may think that all of this is vaguely familiar to them, because the rituals by which I mean stereotyped sequences of actions, such as the ceremonial washing of the bowl, also use the power of repetition to focus the mind on immediate sensations and details, rather than on broader practical aspects.

In 2008 psychologists Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienard Washington University in St. Louis even stated that ritual creates a distinct state of attention, in which we view action at a much more basic level than usual. Outside of ritual, individual gestures are usually not interpreted, they are absorbed in our understanding of the broader flow of events. The ritual, on the other hand, shifts attention from the general picture of events to the components.

This is exactly how repetition works in music: it is needed to make nuanced, expressive elements of sound more accessible and to persuade a person to participate.

Given this similarity, it should come as no surprise that many rituals rely on musical accompaniment. Music itself seems to be a powerful tool for enhancing life experiences. Swedish psychologist Alf Gabrielsson asked thousands of people to describe their most vivid music experiences, and then looked for common themes in their responses. Many people reported that their peak musical experiences included a sense of superiority, dissolving boundaries where they seemed to become one with the sounds they heard.

These very deep and touching experiences can be partially explained by shifting attention and heightened feelings of engagement caused by repetition. Indeed, psychologist Carlos Pereira and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki have demonstrated that our brains are more active in their emotional areas when the music we listen to is familiar, whether we really like it or not.

Even involuntary repetition, contrary to our own musical preferences, is valid. This is why music that we hate but hear over and over again can sometimes involuntarily involve us. Repetitive exposure makes one sound almost inevitably connect with another, so when we hear one line of the song, we immediately remember the next. Few sayings have such an overwhelming connection between one part and the other. Therefore, if we really want the parts of speech, information to be rigidly connected to each other, for example, when we memorize a list, we can put it on music and repeat it a couple of times.

Can you turn something into music just by repeating? No, there seems to be something special about the sound of music. Several studies in which musical techniques such as rhythm, repetition, and frequency have been transferred to non-auditory areas (such as blinking lights) have shown that mental processing hallmarks associated with music are more difficult to detect when the underlying material is not audible. …

It is also worth noting that there are many aspects of music that are not affected by repetition: so it cannot explain why a minor chord seems dark and a weakened chord sounds ominous. However, it could explain why a series of these chords can sound emotionally exciting.

The overwhelming prevalence of repetition in music around the world is not accidental.Music has acquired the property of repetition, not because it is less complex than speech, but because it is an important part of the magic that it creates. Repetition actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think is musical. It blazes a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us to immediately anticipate what comes next and participate in what we listen to.

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