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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Her­bie Han­cock Presents the Pres­ti­gious Nor­ton Lec­tures at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty: Watch Online

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed in 1973)

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

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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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