The Science Behind Repetitive Music

The Science Behind Repetitive Music September 10, 2014

Extreme susceptibility to earworms is a fact of life for me. As it is for most of us, I suspect. Just something we’ve come to accept without why or wherefore.

Now, though, I’ve got a bit of a scientific account to help explain their constant presence. And if this little TED tidbit from Dr. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is right, they’re nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they should be encouraged.

How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.


I’ve listened to it a couple of times now — Heh. — and my first reaction was to wish that it were quite a bit longer. Feels like it’s giving me enough to whet my appetite, but not enough for me to really sink my teeth into.

The “listeners shift their attentions across musical repetitions” bit at the 2:30ish mark rings especially true, in my experience. I think that’s why I can listen to the same piece of classical music many times consecutively without feeling like I’m just doing the same thing over and over. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-etc. version’s of the Goldberg’s Quodlibet? Bring ’em on, because I’ll hear something different every time! (Not in Bolero, though. That gets stale.)

So, here. And you’re welcome. Because SCIENCE.

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