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Just about any music involves repetition, and we’ve proved by our listening habits over hundreds of years that we like it that way. It’s not just the songs, symphonies or operas that are so often built on patterns that repeat (like drumbeats, rhythms, melodies, or harmonic cycles), it’s also the fact that we love to listen to the same recording again and again. We don’t get bored by a part or a hook that we’ve heard before; our enjoyment may actually increase.
While so many techniques (like tension and release) are common among many art forms, repetition is something that’s singular to music. In Elizabeth Hellmuth Marguilis book entitled On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind, she outlines how if you were to repeat a word phrase common in a hook of any pop song, after a while it begins to become just a collection of sounds and loses it’s meaning, something that songwriters unknowingly seem to take advantage of more and more. This is called “semantic satiation,” which is that moment when a phrase is overloaded through so much repetition that it slips out of the meaning-processing part of our brains.
But patterns of repetition aren’t just songwriter techniques. They’re invitations for listeners to participate. As Margulis puts it: “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 favorite song.” That could be the reason why we return again and again to listen to a song we love. We like the way that it plays us, rather than the way we play it.
In fact, a USC study found that songs that have the most repetition are the ones with the highest chart positions and are more likely to be hits. If you really want some good examples of this, just check out VH1’s 15 Most Repetitive Songs Of All Time and look at the number of times the hook is repeated for each. For all you songwriters, do you think you can break 100 repetitions in one song?
Repetition is part of our musical experience and it’s something to be embraced. It’s been with us a long time already, and looks like it will be with us for a long time in the future.