Why We Love Repetition in Music: Explained in a New TED-Ed Animation

Our favorite pop songs have a repeating chorus. You can pretty much bank on that. But, as it turns out, repetition isn’t just a phenomenon in Western music. You’ll find it in many forms of music across the globe. Why is this the case? What makes repetition a fairly universal feature in music? In a new TED-Ed video, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, Professor and Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, “walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than [as] passive listeners.” The animation was done by Andrew Zimbelman.

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via Laughing Squid

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Comments (6)
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  • a musician says:

    Some repetition is desirable. But current pop music takes it to excruciating extremes.

  • Go4Word says:

    Cool article, got to agree, that repetition is OK, as long as it isn’t over done. Everything in moderation.

  • Tim says:

    It doesn’t explain why we don’t like repetition in songs we don’t like, though.

  • Nikolaos Chatziandreou says:

    Although I enjoyed watching this video, I feel that some dimensions about how we relate to music, as a set of information patterns, is missing. Repetition itself is not the only aspect to examine: the length of the repeated patterns is also important, as are their complexity and level of resemblance to a basic theme. It is true that listening to a song over and over again will make me familiar with it (or might make me like it even if I didnu2019t like it to begin with). Yes, the shorter the phrases, the catchier the song. But it is also true that I can also get lethally bored and hate listening to song with short, repetitive phrases. I would like to emphasise on pattern length and processing. Some people prefer music with short, repetitive bits in them (think some of the most popular pop music songs), whereas others prefer compositions with longer phrases, themes, that are elaborated and interweaved to form, yes, similar but much greater patterns with different levels of complexity (think classical music, instrumental soundtracks, and so on). Even for the same individual – from my own experience, what I think is crucial to consider is 1) the ability to decode information, to identify and enjoy patterns, 2) the degree to which one has practiced doing that (e.g. as a little child I disliked u2018heavyu2019 symphonic pieces whereas now I find it easier to appreciate elaborate patterns), and 3) oneu2019s willingness to devote brain power to do that. If you try to listen to the u2018wrongu2019 music at the wrong time, it just doesnu2019t work. Therefore, I believe that human perception and liking of music do not fit in one box labelled u201chumans prefer repetitive musicu201d. In that study (see video), the researchers should also consider the greater social/information context within which their observations were made. Short information patterns, their recognition and interpretation, is something that is increasingly promoted in our days. Every day our pattern recognition ability is exposed to and conditioned by short, repetitive audio stimuli (e.g. pop music, advertisements, versus classical music), short videos (2-minute posts on YouTube and even 6-second posts on Vine versus 2-hour cinema films), and short writings (long newspaper articles versus 140-character Twitter posts). Even the time that we give to each other to express ourselves in a conversation is very short. In reality, my recognition of information patterns (audio, video, reading) is a function of my ability at any given time in my life (disliking symphonic piece as a child) and my willingness to do that depending on the conditions: my experience depends on whether I focus on the music played, whether I keep it in the background while I am doing something else, what I do while I am listening to music (brain power-hungry tasks or not), or how tired I am. Importantly, my appreciation of shorter or longer sound patterns depends on how I feel – to put it simply, whether I am in the mood for classical or pop. Our relationship with the patterns we perceive does not fit in simplified observations but, at least, the frame of reference within which such observations are made should be provided to describe better the multitude of possibilities in our reality – cognitive, actual, and shared.

  • lol says:

    this is interesting lol

  • lol says:


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