One more time

by 2700 2,700 words
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One more time

A gospel choir leads the congregation in song during a Sunday service at the National Pentecostal Church, Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Dieter Telemans/Panos

Why do we listen to our favourite music over and over again? Because repeated sounds work magic in our brains

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, a trained concert pianist, and the author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind (2013).

2700 2,700 words
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What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening. But evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music.

To begin with, there’s the sheer amount of it. Cultures all over the world make repetitive music. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois counts repetitiveness among the few musical universals known to characterise music the world over. Hit songs on American radio often feature a chorus that plays several times, and people listen to these already repetitive songs many times. The musicologist David Huron at Ohio State University estimates that, during more than 90 per cent of the time spent listening to music, people are actually hearing passages that they’ve listened to before. The play counter in iTunes reveals just how frequently we listen to our favourite tracks. And if that’s not enough, tunes that get stuck in our heads seem to loop again and again. In short, repetition is a startlingly prevalent feature of music, real and imagined.

In fact, repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song. The psychologist Diana Deutsch, at the University of California, San Diego, discovered a particularly powerful example – the speech-to-song illusion. The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.

The speech-to-sound illusion, discovered by Diana Deutsch, UC San Diego. To experience the illusion, play the two recordings in sequence. Credit: Diana Deutsch

The transformation is truly bizarre. You’d think that listening to someone speak and listening to someone sing were separate things, distinguished by the objective characteristics of the sound itself. It seems obvious: I hear someone speak when she’s speaking, and sing when she’s singing. But the speech-to-song illusion reveals that the exact same sequence of sounds can seem either like speech or like music, depending only on whether it has been repeated. Repetition can actually shift your perceptual circuitry such that the segment of sound is heard as music: not thought about as similar to music, or contemplated in reference to music, but actually experienced as if the words were being sung.

This illusion demonstrates what it means to hear something musically. The ‘musicalisation’ shifts your attention from the meaning of the words to the contour of the passage (the patterns of high and low pitches) and its rhythms (the patterns of short and long durations), and even invites you to hum or tap along with it. In fact, part of what it means to listen to something musically is to participate imaginatively.

When they’re being heard as music, the two words – ‘sometimes behave’ – in Deutsch’s recording contain the next two words – ‘so strangely’ – almost inevitably within them. Try listening to the original utterance again and pausing it after the words ‘sometimes behave’: unable to resist completing the pattern, your mind automatically offers the continuation ‘so strangely’. When you hear something as music, you aren’t so much listening to as listening along with.

Repetition is the key to this participatory aspect of music. My own lab at the University of Arkansas did some research using rondos, a repetitive kind of musical composition that was particularly popular in the late 18th century. In our study, 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 that varied the refrain a little. Then again, classical rondos provide very little opportunity for audience participation, and it’s notable that musical situations that expressly call for broad involvement generally feature even more repetition – think of the number of times a church responsorial calls on the congregation 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 along, for instance), people still get involved in ways that range from subtle swaying to air guitar to full-voiced singing along.

Can music exist without repetition? Well, music is not a natural object and composers are free to flout any tendency that it seems to exhibit. Indeed, over the past century, a number of composers expressly began to avoid repetitiveness in their work. In a recent study at the Music Cognition lab, we played people samples of this sort of music, written by such renowned 20th-century composers as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of these samples had been digitally altered. Segments of these excerpts, chosen only for convenience and not for aesthetic effect, had been extracted and reinserted. These altered excerpts differed from the original excerpts only in that they featured 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 listeners in the study 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. The listeners in the study were college undergraduates with no special training or experience in contemporary art music.

A phrase that sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second

Even so, when I presented these findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory in 2011, 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. Admittedly, this study does not address the specially cultivated listening habits of the cognoscenti, but it does reveal something about the way listeners make sense of music that is new to them. Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent. A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second.

A separate study in my lab 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, which played 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 test subjects 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; they 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. No matter the constituent material, whether it’s strings of syllables or strings of pitches, it seems that the brute force of repetition can work to musicalise sequences of sounds, triggering a profound shift in the way we hear them.

Daily Weekly

To get a sense of how the process works, there’s a very simple trick you can try. Ask an indulgent friend to pick a word – lollipop, for example – and keep saying it to you for a couple minutes. You will gradually experience a curious detachment between the sounds and their meaning. This is the semantic satiation effect, documented more than 100 years ago. As the word’s meaning becomes less and less accessible, aspects of the sound become oddly salient – idiosyncrasies of pronunciation, the repetition of the letter l, the abrupt end of the last syllable, for example. The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself.

Anthropologists might feel that they are on familiar ground here, because it is now understood that rituals – by which I mean stereotyped sequences of actions, such as the ceremonial washing of a bowl – also harness the power of repetition to concentrate the mind on immediate sensory details rather than broader practicalities. In the case of the bowl-washing, for example, the repetition makes it clear that the washing gestures aren’t meant merely to serve a practical end, such as making the bowl clean, but should rather serve as a locus of attention in themselves.

In 2008, the psychologists Pascal Boyer and Pierre Liénard at Washington University in St Louis went so far as to claim that ritual creates a distinct attentional state in which we consider actions on a much more basic level than usual. Outside of ritual, individual gestures aren’t usually interpreted on their own terms; they are absorbed into our understanding of the larger flow of events. Ritual shifts attention from the overall pattern of events toward their component gestures. Instead of noting only that a bowl is being cleaned, the witness to a ritual might notice the acceleration of the hand across the bowl’s edge during each wiping gesture, or the way the cloth bunches and then opens as it is dragged forward and back across the surface. What’s more, the repetition of gestures makes it harder and harder to resist imaginatively modelling them, feeling how it might be to move your own hand in the same way. This is precisely the way that repetition in music works to make the nuanced, expressive elements of the sound increasingly available, and to make a participatory tendency – a tendency to move or sing along – more irresistible.

our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we are listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it

Given these similarities, it should be no surprise that many rituals actually depend on music. And music does seem to be a potently mind-expanding tool in its own right. The Swedish psychologist Alf Gabrielsson asked thousands of people to describe their most powerful experiences with music, then searched their responses for common themes. Many people reported that their peak musical experiences involved a sense of transcendence, of dissolved boundaries where they seemed to escape the limitations of their bodies and become one with the sounds they were hearing. These very deep and moving experiences can be partially explained by the shift in attention and the heightened sense of involvement brought about by repetition. Indeed, the psychologist Carlos Pereira and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki demonstrated that our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we are listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it.

Even involuntary repetition, quite against our own musical preferences, is powerful. This is why music that we hate but that we’ve heard again and again can sometimes engage us unwillingly; why we can find ourselves on the bus enthusiastically grooving along until we realise that we’re actually listening to We Built This City by Starship. Repeated exposure makes one sound seem to connect almost inevitably to the next, so that when we hear ‘What is love?’, ‘Baby, don’t hurt me’ immediately plays through our minds. Few spoken utterances contain this irresistible connection between one part and the next. And when we do want bits of speech to be tightly bound in this way – if we’re memorising a list of the presidents of the United States, for example – we might set it to music, and we might repeat it. Listening seems musical when the current bit of sound feels like it’s inextricably pulled to the next bit of sound. Repetition intensifies this effect.

Can you make anything into music just by repeating it? No, there seems to be something special about sound. The few studies that have transferred musical devices, such as rhythm, repetition, and periodicity, to non-auditory domains – flashing lights, for example – suggest that the distinctive kinds of mental processing associated with music are harder to elicit when the basic material isn’t sonic.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are many aspects of music not illuminated by repetition. It might be possible to transform speech into song, but a single bowed note on a violin can also sound unambiguously musical without any special assistance. Repetition can’t explain why a minor chord sounds dark or a diminished chord sounds sinister. Still, it might be able to explain why a series of these chords can come to sound rousing and inevitable.

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 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, also owes a lot to repeated exposure.

The stunning prevalence of repetition in music all over the world is no accident. Music didn’t acquire the property of repetitiveness because it’s less sophisticated than speech, and the 347 times that iTunes says you have listened to your favourite album isn’t evidence of some pathological compulsion – it’s just a crucial part of how music works its magic. Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical. It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen. That experience of being played by the music is what creates a sense of shared subjectivity with the sound, and – when we unplug our earbuds, anyway – with each other, a transcendent connection that lasts at least as long as a favourite song.

Read more essays on cognition & intelligence, music and rituals & celebrations


  • SteveInSiliconValley

    This is a fascinating topic that goes beyond music. There is a
    Ritual of Enjoyment for just every one of our senses. I know one psychologist described years ago children's fascination with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories. "Tell me the one about . . . " is a familiar refrain most parents have heard countless times. Yet, it's not just children. How many grown men like to read accounts of sporting events when they already know what happened? Repetition doesn't spoil the prayer.
    Comfort food is often praised as "something my grandmother would make when I was growing up." Why is it that I never get tired of seeing a sunset? Same sunset, different day. Repeat as needed.

    • Boise Ed

      When I read such sport events, I'm looking for additional details that I hadn't seen or noticed at the time, not for repetition. What makes a sunset especially beautiful is the clouds pattern, which is not repetitive.

  • Andrew McIntosh

    Terry Riley, "It's Gonna Rain".

    • musicman

      "It's gonna rain" is by Steve Reich, not Terry Riley

      • Andrew McIntosh

        Sorry, you're right.

      • Andrew McIntosh

        You're right. Sorry.

      • jlgalley

        Right. Sorry, you're.

      • teledyn

        I don't observe plumbers whistling "It's gonna rain". Perhaps it is different elsewhere.



    • Denis

      I found the article fascinating; I wonder how you've come to think this was an insult to your intelligence. I’m sure it isn’t.

    • Dejan

      I think you're overestimating your intelligence.

    • Frans

      I agree with Prof. Weinberg. Any and every jazz musician knows about bullshitting..Meaning: repeat the mistake two times, and it will sound meaningfull.

      • Daniel

        This "repeat the mistake twice" concept is EXACTLY what this article is referencing. She mentions the musicologist David Huron; in his book he spends a few pages on that exact concept, and how it connects. He says something along the lines of "if the improviser can play the same thing again, even if it sounded quite wrong the first time, it puts the blame on the AUDIENCE for questioning it in the first place."

        • Robert_13

          There are many ways to cover a mistake while improvising. I often find that my mistakes inspire something that quite spontaneously comes to mind that retroactively makes perfect sense of the mistake. Sometimes it's just harmonic variation of the mistake that leaves the new harmony in a way that is analogous to what happened in the mistake. Sometimes it makes the mistake sound like it was anticipating what was to come. It usually comes as a spontaneous idea that the mistake inspired. Making sense of what was initially an accident often involves some sort of duplication of the mistake, and kind of contrapuntal idea sometimes, maybe even and inversion of it.

          Frans, if you agree with Weinberg? why do you follow up that statement by saying something that completely refutes Weinberg. By the way, what I just described in covering a mistake is not "bullshitting". It is just intelligent improvisation, which involves the skill to recover from and cover mistakes by using them as described.

    • Sandy Asirvatham

      Are you actually a professor of music? Again I find myself so glad that I did not attend music school.


      a working pianist, songwriter, composer, arranger who loved this article and found it very much in comportment with many ideas I've experienced myself and read about elsewhere



  • tetriminos

    to be honest they sounded no different to me

    • astrodreamer

      me neither -- does it work for anybody else? This article strikes me as a fine example of what I call neo-intelligence.

      • speechtosong

        studies have shown that the speech to song effect works for about 85% of people. no one knows why it doesn't work for the other 15%, but it's an excellent question!

        • astrodreamer

          That sounds like a made up statistic, frankly. The 'illusion' seems to require that the listener be told what s/he is supposed to experience. The speaker's delivery was highly musical (in a typically British way) to begin with.

          • blegh

            Nah it definitely works without. Try it yourself.

      • Sandy Asirvatham

        Absolutely worked for me, and the effect was eerie and familiar at the same time.

      • Zellie

        Neo-intelligence on the part of a premier neuroscientist and concert pianist? You better know with whom you quibble before you quibble. Hellmuth-Margulis is not a "neo" anything. (BTW Her ability to write well for a lay audience only underscores her native intelligence.)

    • Rae Claire

      I think it's possible to resist, or to voluntarily get into it. I did notice the woman had a "musical" voice from the very first words. It sort of worked for me--enough that I agree with the point being made.


    the assumption that all music is the same--its structures and emotions--is infantile. In western classical music, repetition--called a sequence--has a special compositorial use. That is to say to take the work, and the listener, into new structural and emotional discoveries by using a special kind of repetition. However these repetitions called sequences are not played or composed sequentially but consequentially. It is all part of what is called thematic development. Other music in other cultures uses different means to express itself, they are completely different from the western classical music 'repetition'. I find that i am stating the obvious which this young lady should be well aware of and I therefore wonder what the hell she thinks she is doing. However this type of work is very typically American and would not get a 'pass' in any University in the UK

    • Dejan

      I think you've fundamentally misunderstood the article and are needlessly exotifying non-western cultures and exceptionalizing the west.

    • SaintMarx

      Your behavior would not be considered charming anywhere.

    • Faustus

      A caricature of a professor.

    • Jeffrey C. Soto

      You write like a sexist, although you can hardly write for someone who teaches anything. Your usage and mechanics are both flawed, and you didn't even capitalize your sentences or personal pronouns. You shouldn't criticize others publicly if you can't even write one sentence without flagrant errors.

      Also, you use dashes far too much. "Rational thoughts can't even exist in such a chaotic form- were you drunk when you wrote this, or are you this incoherent all the time?" That was an example of excellent usage; take note.

      And had you studied musical anthropology (your lack of wisdom indicates you haven't, so please don't embarrass yourself by suggesting otherwise- that would just suggest you're stupid, and not pitiably ignorant) you'd come to understand that most folk music, most popular contemporary music, and practically all music passed down through oral tradition -"music" for the majority of people- has been almost always repetitive in nature.

      Study more and speak less, you vacant old man.

    • dtobias

      Where exactly did this article say that "all music is the same"? It pointed out some underlying basic things about it that are perhaps common to all genres, but that doesn't mean they are applied the same everywhere or that there aren't many other attributes different sorts of music can have.



        • dtobias

          Does posting messages that say "subscribe" or "unsubscribe" actually do anything? I seem to be seeing a lot of it lately on web forums. Isn't it an old email-list thing?

          • Andrew

            I think he's just being rude.

  • Jill

    Well, repetition can be torture too - the 'musak' played in supermarkets for example, NEVER gets my mind into the kind of state described above.

  • teledyn

    you do realize that this explains nothing. We ring a bell, some brain activity occurs, that tells us nothing. It tells us only that the creature hearing the bell is alive. That the activity occurs in some region (and such statements are always overly simplistic) tells us nothing. My favourite was "why do babies like looking at their mother? because the like-centre of the brain lights up when they look at mama!" It is a circular argument, it says nothing whatsoever. Oh, they say, "Evolution" made this pleasurable by exciting dopamine production so we'd keep doing it! That doesn't explain, that only describes a bit more than, "Evolution" made this pleasurable by making us smile; the two go together, but it is "causality is not correlation" in spades.

    Now ... subjectively (remember the Hard Problem of consciousness) we do observe empirically that many musics do repeat, some repeat in really really obtuse ways (Bach for example, although I doubt most people recognize a reversed inversion, it is mostly a cleverness for the fellow musicians to admire) whereas some musics only *seem* to repeat to people from a different culture looking at it superficially. There is, nonetheless some inescapable magic in the concepts of tone, timbre, meter and rhythm that thus far defies explanation yet reliably affects a great many (but not all) humans, and not all in the same way with the same sounds (and THAT is peculiar) -- a useful explanation would have to say "this stimulus, repeated this way, inevitably triggers this pathway due to this principle of physics and THAT leads directly and inevitably to dopamine/seratonin whatever production that we then experience as pleasure" (we have such an explanation for 'hot' chili spice and menthol 'cool') but thus far we have no such causal hypothesis for music, only the correlation that happiness and music and happiness and brain centre X are correlated, ie, that music makes us happy. however it is that is done or to what purpose, we don't know.

    • SaintMarx

      ""this stimulus, repeated this way, inevitably triggers this pathway due to this principle of physics and THAT leads directly and inevitably to dopamine/seratonin whatever production that we then experience as pleasure" "

      This doesn't really explain anything either. It remains a mystery how a dopamine/seratonin or other physical reaction can lead to an experience.

      • dadafountain

        Ever drink a beer? It's not that much of a mystery.

  • HatersGonnaHate

    Interesting article. I don't understand why these comments are so critical - this article wasn't reductionist neurobabble, she gave a thoughtful partial explanation in very human terms. 'When sounds are repeated, we pay less attention to their literal meaning and focus on the actual sensation. This is probably important in music.'

    That first claim makes intuitive sense, and you can experience it yourself by just repeating a single word for two minutes. Why does repetition make us focus on different aspects of the sound? Because we've already processed the obvious parts, and have time to consider the full experience. It's like rewatching a good movie, where you already know the plot and can notice the angles and subtle foreshadowing. We can linger over the purpose and full sensation of each bit. There is solid neurology lurking behind this fact, but it would be convincing even without any neurological references.

    Connecting this to music is just as clever, and just as obvious in retrospect. Music is flagrantly repetitive at every level, from basic rhythm to well-worn playlists. What other kinds of experience get 'stuck in your head', small fragments of it looping through your mind for hours at a time? Repetition at every scale is clear in the music of any genre and any culture, even if some traditions (ie, western classical) are more self-conscious of it.

    She does branch off of this main idea with some speculative observations, but does so in a modest, naturally curious way. It's *really cool* to think about how you might make flashing lights 'feel' like music, and all the borders between music and ordinary speech.

    One reason music is intellectually mysterious is because disembodied sounds, with no referential meaning, just structured in different patterns, can give us specific emotions. Looking at repetition this way flips the question around - we get specific emotions precisely because it's an abstract pattern of senses, letting us experience it without distraction. Like she says, this doesn't explain why we have reaction A to melody B, but it does help understand why we have a reaction to it in the first place.

    • Bill Benzon

      "I don't understand why these comments are so critical. . . "

      Well, some people think any use of psychology in investigating music is an open invitation to intellectual cooties. And we wouldn't want to get them nasty cooties, would we?

    • Bob Grumman

      I'm pretty much with HGH. The repetition of words reduces their semantic to auditory ratio, so the more repetition of words, the more we experience them as sound. An interesting experiment would be monitoring reactions to verbal nonsense. I suspect it would soon also seem like music--by becoming pure sound. Or Gertrude Stein's words nonsensically arranged--although repetition is often a major component of these experiments of hers.
      Note: even the "non-repetitive" music mentioned in the article depends on repetition--the repetition provided by further hearings. Repetition inevitably becomes boring, so by postponing it until a second complete performance of a piece will take the listener longer to appreciate, but also longer to get sick of.

      • grogon

        "Note: even the "non-repetitive" music mentioned in the article depends
        on repetition--the repetition provided by further hearings."

        We can go further here. When a single piano note is played we expect there are more to follow. Because when we hear an instrument, we expect music - based on our previous experiences. It would be interesting to study people who never heard any music in their lives. But where to find one...

        Anyway - article makes my impression of music that has much stronger base in biological than cultural ground.

  • MCope

    An interesting article that accords with my experience, though as with everything one can find exceptions.

    I was also interested in the observations about ritual and attention.

    • American Cannibal


  • Jonathan_Briggs

    Nothing new or surprising here, in fact, mostly a statement of the bleedin' obvious. Most people are happy with the familiar, whether it be the foods we eat, the type of books we read, the music we listen to, it hardly needs a research project to tell us this. The musicality of the human voice has been remarked upon for hundreds of years, it's the sort of thing Shakespeare and other poets from the pre-Christian era have used to great effect, particularly in ballads, and it is particularly effective poetry and rhyme written for children.

    There was a researcher from Nantes
    who had trouble when choosing his pants
    but taking his wife
    to avoid shopping strife
    reassured the researcher from Nantes.

    • Sandy Asirvatham

      I think you have missed the point. It's not merely about being happy with the familiar, but that the repetition itself is what CONSTITUTES the perception that something is musical. That's what the sound examples are all about.

  • American Cannibal


  • saksin

    Two comments on an enjoyable essay on repetition in music:
    1. Those
    forced to communicate over distance in circumstances of high ambient
    noise (my own experience being the natural daytime rainforest din caused
    by cicadas, rustling leaves, birds and other animals) realize that the
    way to get your message across is to stick to a fixed phrase and to
    repeat it, over and over, tirelessly. Here repetition is a means of
    ensuring signal transmission through noise.
    2. On his first exposure
    to the iconoclastic genre of modern jazz styling itself "free form"
    (namely Ornette Coleman's controversial 1960 performances at the New
    York City Five Spot jazz club), Chalie Mingus commented: "...if the
    free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they
    were playing something...". Here repetition, the ability to play the
    same (complex) phrase twice, is a means of prove command, mastery.

  • Bill Benzon

    So here's what I'm wondering. When know that the brain areas for music
    perception and language perception overlap. What I'm wondering is if the
    repetition of the phrase habituates some language circuits, thereby
    dampening them, and thus allows the musical circuits greater subjective

    I should be possible to investigate this w/ fMRI.

    • Christina

      One study has started to answer this question, suggesting that pitch processing areas in the brain become more active for excerpts that do transform compared to those that do no transform from speech to song.

  • hypnosifl

    Can you make anything into music just by repeating it? No, there seems to be something special about sound. The few studies that have transferred musical devices, such as rhythm, repetition, and periodicity, to non-auditory domains – flashing lights, for example – suggest that the distinctive kinds of mental processing associated with music are harder to elicit when the basic material isn’t sonic.

    There is some interesting evidence that the special appeal of repetition in sound has to do with the learned ability to mimic sounds: some research suggests the only animals that exhibit "dancing" type motions in response to music are those that are capable of such mimicry, including a case of an elephant that had learned to mimic truck sounds. Article here:

  • John Evans

    'Vexations' by Eric Satie.

  • jimlette

    As far as a violin note being perceived as musical, it also is repetition (on a periodic wave level). That's what distinguishes it from noise.

    • Jeffrey C. Soto

      I am so happy to see this! I was going to say the same thing.

      • Stan Astan

        I respectfully disagree. A violin note is about craftsmanship, intensive training (involving repetition - there you go) and the confidence built into the combination.
        A violin note is like a savory brandy or whiskey - intoxicating. It's hard to define . . .

  • stevesailer

    The level of repetition in a piece of music should be quantifiable: Beethoven's Third Symphony is more repetitious than an Elliott Carter string quartet but less repetitious than Bolero or Innagaddadavida.

  • stevesailer

    The best composers combine repetition with novelty. Cole Porter, to pick somebody universally acknowledged as among the best at his genre, is constantly lulling you into thinking you know what's coming next, only to have it go in a different direction that seems inevitable after you hear it.

  • American Cannibal

    "Why do we listen to our favourite music over and over again? Because repeated sounds work magic in our brains" except for Aeon.

    • American Cannibal

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  • Rick Robinson

    In music, simply using a constant METER (such as 4/4) makes a repetitive pattern. In fact, the minds subconsciously looks for patterns even where none exists. Classical music (baroque to romantic) progressively attempted to extend music by balancing large repetition with large development. Nonetheless, part of this balance involved constant mini-repetitions (motifs) but in a variety of keys, instruments and distortions. A good composer is keenly aware of the psychological effects of repeating themselves WHEN. Repetition comforts/flatters the listener to know what's going to happen next... and when it deviates, depending on many things, it can either be a delicately pleasant surprise or a hugely shocking turn of events.

    • Jan Civil

      4/4 does not through itself/as purely meter guarantee any such thing. If it's dealt with conventionally with emphases we expect from our experience with conventions, it would.

      4/4 can be made to do whatever one likes with it, just as '11/16' does not have to seem like it's terrifically tricky.

      Anyway, as to the article, it seemed rather glib to me and to some extent to confirm premises artificially. I agree most people are flattered and comforted with reiteration and I could see how a spoken phrase with enough pitch contour could be mistaken as musical intent looped in the right way. But these notions are given as if they are true per se, and I doubt it, I suspect the exercise was manipulated towards an end in order to talk about it. A recording of someone that talks in a monotone and consistent pulse and duration is not as likely to be confused for a singer as one 'speaking more musically' just through reiteration in an edit I think.

  • eisweino

    Part of what makes the phrase musical is its rhythm as spoken. Daah bump-bump duh bump daah bump bump. If this were absent, as is generally the case in synthesized speech, I doubt any musicality would emerge simply by virtue of repetition. The writer ignores the whole kinesthetic aspect of musical response and memory.

    • Kaylasa

      If you had heard the examples they present, you would realize the author DOES NOT ignore the kinesthetic aspect of musical response. It's there.

  • europe

    a lot of the reason that we love repetition in music is down to the fact that our brains are designed to pick out patterns in the background noise that we're surrounded by. If we hear repetition then it's most likely being made by another animal. We then get a little dopamine reward for discovering this.

  • Rich

    Great article, fascinating stuff. Understanding human capacities for rhythm or pattern perception is terribly important for understanding human cultural behavior and ideas. One minor caveat: Pascal Boyer is *technically* an anthropologist who researches the mind, likely why he was mentioned in the short section bringing up anthropology.

    I'm also confused by the commenter who suggested that non-Western music doesn't develop themes or use repetition to as large an extent as Western classical music does... that is flat wrong. I research some musical genres in the Arabian Peninsula, and the level of repetition, *exact* repetition is immense. I have interviewed performers and participated in the music myself, and I can report that almost everyone perceives this effect of "semantic saturation", differential pattern recognition, speech-song confusion, etc. This really rang true for me.

    • Otis Idli

      Didn't see that comment you refer to, but I don't think there's any question about the universality of repeating melody and rhythm in traditional music. I've encountered just about every documented musical genre in the world and it's just the normal way music works (prior to the 20th century culture of rejecting traditional music of course).


    Music is what you hear when you listen to yourself!!!!!

  • Stan Astan

    I'm sure there is a partial truth in this. But what about those staggering bits of music we hear everyday that we can't retrieve? I'm not so sure this is a truth about music as much as a truth about command of technology. Something tells me the more options available to identify and retrieve all types of music will make things seem less mindless.

  • Philip Ball

    Reich's "It's Gonna Rain", sure, but more pertinent to that first illusion is his "Different Trains". There's a natural musicality in prosody, and some folks think that the emotionality conveyed by both music and prosody stem from the same evolutionary source (but that's speculative). It would be interesting to know if the experiment works for speakers of tonal languages.
    Anyway, this is a nice piece. There are always some folk who will be upset by attempts to understand (some of) what music does at a cognitive level. I guess it is a little challenging implying that doctoring Carter and Berio to include repetition makes them seem more "musical", given that they and some serialists were going flat out to avoid repetition. But there really is a discordance between cognitive mechanisms of music listening and some avant-garde music. This doesn't make the latter bad, it just tells us that we need to find new ways of hearing it, and not to listen to it with "Mozart ears".

    • Otis Idli

      English (maybe all languages--I don't know) has the same melodic contours as tonal languages. They are just used for different purposes, e.g. phrase-level contrast meanings, instead of their use in tonal languages for word-level lexical meanings. So I would expect the experiment to work the same for those languages. It would be a great question to explore further.

      "new ways of hearing" indeed. The big trend in avant-garde music is easy to understand as perceiving the more syntactically irregular and less culturally codified aspects of sound structure instead of melody and repeating rhythms, the two pillars of almost all music before the 20th century emergence of what we usually call avant-garde, recognizing the variety of usages of that term. I listen to a great deal of anti-repetitive music and I enjoyed reading your comment.

  • Francesca Ford

    I really enjoyed this article! Even though this is about music, it applies just as well to poetry. I took a poetry class a few years ago and I was the only person who wrote in formal verse. Formal verse is characterized by repetition. Rhyme and alliteration are repeated sounds from words. Even meter is repeated stress patterns. I wish I had had this article when one of my classmates asked, "Why did people ever write that way?"

  • Sandro Babo

    this just shows why techno is the best music in the world

  • Richard

    Repetitious and ear-shattering 'pop' music represents the ultimate dumbing-down of the people. People are rendered senseless by endless repetition of puerile and simplistic melodies, usually with a maximum of three (or four) chord changes. What happened to great music (which was once the 'pop' music of its day)? What happened, for example, to the repetition of fugue statements in music such as Bach's where the repetitions were accompanied by the most incredibly inventive harmonies and rhythmic variations. Too complicated for the poor darlings that even had to dumb down the spelling of the English language until they just sort of stopped because the undertaking was seen to be too monumental!

    • Kaylasa

      I understand your point, and you're right.....but you're expressing it in a very arrogant, stuck up way. You don't need to call others idiots in order to demonstrate you're a smart guy.

  • Stephen Malinowski

    There's more to it than just repetition. I've heard the Diana Deutsch demonstration several times in the past few months, but when I listened to the phrase for the first time today, the repeated segment ("sometimes behave so strangely") did not sound like music (though the phase as a whole did seem familiar). It was only after hearing the repetitions again that the musical effect kicked in. I think this might have also happened if the notes of the segment had been played on (for example) the piano before it was spoken. I think it might have even happened if the tonic (the note on the syllable '-have") had been established beforehand.

  • A critical musicologist

    It is not music that this article is about, it is just one definition of music, one that has been chosen arbitrarily by the author of this article as well as the authors of the underlying study. The whole thing seems rather questionable upon further investigation and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as:

    Do we love repetition in music?

    Does a pattern of speech per se not only differ from music through its context or the absence thereof?

    Music as a complex subject manner with many implications of contextual, cultural, social, political, etc nature, seems to have been dumbed down to enable these outsiders by their subject (neuroscientists, journalist) to grasp it.

  • ÆbTr0ñ ]-[mèél§hıp


  • Brandon Brown

    I enjoyed this article, but I do think that scientific studies of music often walk close to the edge of reductionism, betraying an underlying materialist presumption. One means by which this line of thought may be aided in avoiding that charge is by considering repetition in the extreme which is, of course, not "musical." A simple signal, for example would not illicit a categorization as "musical" though it is the epitome of repetition. Even a steady beat, I would venture to assert, will not be perceived by the average listener as "musical" if it is not complicated by some syncopation. Information theory tells us that coding, language, communication itself, occur in that space between random noise and complete predictability. This tension connects the questions of what is music and language with equally mysterious questions about the nature of life itself. It is no wonder that humans perceive emotional content within expressions that embody the same tension between order and chaos that underly our very physical and biological existence. Could not the science lead us to more questions rather than reductive answers?

  • Stan Astan

    I think these are all echoes of our past. Literacy is relatively new to us. Tools were needed to perpetuate ideas through the generations. Without these tools progress would have been impossible. These are hard-wired into us (even if some are not particularly necessary nowadays.)

    I tend to embrace my past and the prospect of my future. Music and poetry have enriched me beyond imagination. So have "how to" books, text books, road maps, and telephone books.

    To me, this is about the richness of the human experience. Let us all revel in Ravel's "Bolero" and raise a glass to a lover in honor of repetition.

    (Repeat as necessary.)

  • Robert_13

    Two comments:

    1) Although I noticed the strength of the psychological effect under discussion, I found the part that repeats later to be musical the first time I heard it. It definitely increases in this effect after the repetitions, so I respect the principle. The repeated part very closely approximates, though, the notes of D#, C#, B, D#, F#, This amounts to a real melody starting on the third of B major and moving to the tonic, then jumping back up to the third, dropping to the second, and then down to the fifth just under the tonic. This melodically implies a tonic-dominant-tonic sequence, which happens to be the most common harmonic sequence in western harmonic music. Accordingly, I would like to see how strongly this effect shows up with the repetition of a much less musical snippet of speech.

    2) I like to think of music as an abstract imitation of the nature of life. It has a home, the tonic, and tends to start there and end there. We leave our literal homes all the time, but we keep coming back. Music creates and resolves emotional tension, ebbing and flowing just like life. It has exciting, mountainous climaxes and valleys of serenity, imitating both geographical and emotional realities.

    Pitch can change as a continuum or as discrete pitches in imitation of both macroscopic and microscopic perspectives on physical reality, both Einstein's relativity and quantum mechanics. It is the ultimate illustration of the relativity of meaning, since although words shift meanings in different contexts, they are more stable than a single note, which has no meaning at all except within the context of what precedes and succeeds it.

    Most important to the current discussion, I think of music as genetic. Things repeat, but often with sometimes slight and sometimes large variations. Sometimes the melodic structure is different, but the rhythm remains the same. Sometimes this is reversed. Sometimes either or both are inverted. Music is almost always genetic in the sense that a new motive looks a lot like its parent, but different, Sometimes the motive child has two parents and obviously contains elements of both.

    This quasi-genetic nature of music uses the psychology of repetition treated in this discussion with the added interest of noticing both the sameness and the differences. This is fun and makes the listener feel clever for having noticed. It kind of tickles the brain with this little quasi-genetic game.

  • Otis Idli

    I tried listening to the speech-to-song illusion 3 times and didn't get any effect at all.

  • Tyler Brown

    This was a very well written article on a very interesting topic! Bravo! However, I have one gripe. Did Diana Deutsch really "discover" the speech to song illusion? This illusion has been heavily used by musicians for practically as long as sampling has been around. The process of using an MPC to cut up samples of other songs and play them back in a novel way purposefully takes of advantage of exactly the kind of effects this article describes... and MPC's have been used in the production of COUNTLESS modern songs. Especially hip-hop! I'm not trying to diminish the role of this author and other scientists in describing these fascinating phenomena, as its an important job. However, give musicians and producers the credit they deserve for discovering these phenomena!

  • Leftist_Conservative

    read schumaker's book THE CORRUPTION OF REALITY.

    His thesis is that human beings are evolved to be able to go into trance state and thus compartmentalize/rationalize their foreknowledge of death. This helps them cope and better survive.

    This ability to enter a trance state was evolved by mankind and is facilitated by ritual ceremony accompanied by music.

  • Mary Burns

    Interesting. I have toyed with repetition in plays. I think it does change the perceiver's consciousness. The repetition of a visual image fixes it and then inspires connections in the minds of audience members, and repeated phrases do the same thing.

  • Kaylasa

    The really scary and fascinating thing is tht long after hearing the repeated sound patters they show in this article, I was singing it inside my head! The speech became an actual sound in my mind! That said, Hindu music is characterized for a change in begin with a 4/4 pattern, then you jump to a 3/4 pattern, you go back to 4/4 and then to 2/4....Hindu music has VERY ancient roots, so it doesn't respect this repetition of patters. And yet, it is extremely powerful. My point would be really interesting to read what scientists have to say about Hindu music and in general music that is not Western.