I learned today that I may be some sort of freak, at least in the auditory and/or musical sense. Maybe you are too. Or maybe you’re reassuringly normal. Maybe the best way to tell is to go take a look at the music you listen to. Take a moment to consider the folder of music on your hard drive, your shelves of CDs, rack of collector’s vinyl, or box of cassettes… feeling freak-ish?

The reason I ask is a mini-TED talk called “Why we love repetition in music” by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (interesting name, interesting talk).

The talk is only four and half minutes long (the length of the average pop single?) and makes the point that we like repetition in our music. In fact, we demand it. The more repetitive the chorus of a song is, and the more times you listen to it, the more you’re going to like it. Hence, I suppose the old music critics’ cliché, “…rewards repeated listening…” Liz H M’s point is that repetition is reassuring, it’s comfortable, it’s why we like music, it’s what makes music catchy, makes our feet tap and, wherever you live in the world (this is a global phenomenon apparently and not culturally-specific) repetition is what makes music, music. In other words, if it’s not repetitive, we don’t think it’s musical.

Before you scoff… they even conducted a little experiment. They gathered some recordings of non-repetitive music (by some of the most respected 20th century composers, apparently) and had people listen to them. Then they had them listen to versions of the same recordings that had been altered (sometimes quite brutally) by software to exhibit more repetition. Predictably, the lab rats (sorry, I mean to say, the people who had graciously consented to be part of the experiment) preferred the mechanically treated versions. They thought them not only more ‘musical’ but also much more likely to have been created by a human composer. This is, I suppose, just the latest instance of computers passing the Turing Test and a sign that the machines are indeed taking over the world.

Is Liking Music A Question of Repetition?

But… but, but, but… what about the non-repetitive music (composed by “some of the most respected 20th century composers” don’t forget)? Does this mean that the common view is that it has no musical value; that it isn’t in fact, music at all? That’s certainly the implication and this is exactly why I’m feeling a bit freak-like. Because I love non-repetitive music. Give me Frank Zappa over Lady Gaga any day – the whole appeal of Uncle Frank’s music is that you never know where he’s going next. In fact, the standing premise of his live shows was that he would conduct his bands according to the whim of the moment, triggering tightly-rehearsed passages with a gesture whenever he felt like it and not according to the usual dictates of repetitive pop or rock music.

And then there’s free jazz, hundreds of artists from Ornette Coleman’s ground-breaking 1961 album of the same name, to contemporary Scandinavian trio The Thing (no relation to Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four) – all scraping, honking and skronking away with the explicit intention of avoiding repetition. No musical value? Not music? Really? It is to my ears. But I guess, according to TED (and Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis) that’s what puts me outside of the norm. A non-musical freak. Well, not-so-secretly, I’m content to be there. The norm is overrated at best.

Somehow this puts me in mind of lyrics from “Nothing Ever Happens” by 80s band Del Amitri (which was, admittedly, very catchy and had a nicely repetitive chorus):

And nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all,
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before

Don’t forget to tap your foot…

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