Music: On Repeat

Science has always been a bit of a stick in the mud when it comes to the arts. It is never enough to simply appreciate a work of art for what it is, or whose it is, or when it was from or just how much effort went into its making. All of which are simpler questions to answer than the inevitably asked, Why is it art?

It has been easier to avert the question in the more physical forms of paintings and sculpture, of course, since they are attempts to capture nature. They are beautiful, and artistic because they are our surroundings immortalized. The same could be said of the old gramophone recordings that captured the sounds of the world and scratched them on vinyl forever preserved.

The unquantifiable bit jumps out at us with the spark of creation. Somehow, the sum total of experiences of an individual, of a very particular individual, say, in this case, Beethoven, comes together in a beautiful moment and abruptly, there is a noise that was never heard before made free from his imagination. And boy, is it glorious. From out of seemingly nowhere, we have the fifth symphony. Now can someone get it out of my head, please?

Then that irritating question comes back again. There are many why’s that spawn from this anecdote, Why did Beethoven write it as he did, Why did this note follow on that one and not another, Why did no one make this before, and so on and forth. There are many answers as well, most of them in part, for music is a pioneering field of study, and there is as much about music we do not know, as the decidedly more romantic friendly black hole at the center of our galaxy.

One answer, proffered in part, is the curious case of repetition. Repetition is quite central to music, be it from a set of notes drawing across the keys again and again, or the chorus that comes to our lips from the blare of our speakers. And it contributes greatly to the essence of music.

Diana Deutsch, of the University of California, San Diego, discovered that if a part of a phrase is repeated, it takes on the illusion of being sung aloud. It is as if nuances and flourishes were being added in our minds when in reality, it is simply the same noise over and over again. We’ve definitely been at this crossroads before when humming some inane phrase repeatedly under our breath, be it even the mundane ‘Doing the laundry today’ a la Marshall Eriksen.

The explanation for this lies in the shift in focus that repetition brings about. And that change in perspective is perhaps the key to art. Repetition is obviously not the only way to bring it about, but it is one of the ways where this is most clear. The focus shifts from the cadence of the individual syllables, to the way the phrase rises and falls as it repeats, and a simple mundane phrase becomes a Disney ditty.

Still, making things more musical isn’t just where repetition hangs up its hat and heads home. It also has an effect on our affinity toward things in general. There is a documented bias towards familiarity. Humans, after all, are creatures of habit, and so it isn’t exactly a surprise that experiences that have occurred before are more to our liking than unfamiliar ones.

This has been shown by seemingly bizarre experiments where people prefer triangles to other shapes because they were shown those before and so on, but rigor occasionally demands weirdness. What it amounts to, however, is that music we’ve heard before leaves its mark on us. And we respond more favourably to the music we’ve heard before than to that which we have not.

Well, that explains why that earworm stuck in our head is so persistent. But on the flip side, that also means that Stairway to Heaven is only going to get better the more you (read: your friend who denies that they like it) listen to it.

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