Monday, April 14, 2014

Music sounds better when you hear it again

Maybe Andy had it right. From Flikr, via the MOMA.

Hear it again

I have written about repetition of lyrics in music, but what about repetition of the music itself? Well, recently Elizabeth Hellmoth Margulis wrote about musical repetition in her book How Music Plays the Mind (2013). I haven't read the book yet, but I did read this article in Aeon Magazine in which she discusses some of her main points (you can also see a digest version on

To bring out a few of those points: it turns out that we like music more when we hear it multiple times. For example, Margulis took music by Luciano Berio, a famous 20th-century composer known for writing complex music that does not repeat, and added some repeats (you can hear some snippets in the NPR article). Then, she played these for other musicians, not telling them which was the original, and asked which version was more compelling. It turns out that the doctored versions beat out the original. Says Margulis, in explaining her results:

"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."
Our brain is wired to want to hear music again, and like it more on the repeat. Even when we aren't listening to anything, our brain may play us back 30-second snippets of catchy music, called "earworms". And our behavior reflects this disposition—David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, estimates that as much as 90 percent of the music we hear is something we've heard before.

This all makes sense to me. I know I will often like a song more just because I have listened to it before. Also, I've had the experience of rehearsing a 20th-century atonal piece of music over and over again, and getting those "melodies" stuck in my head, melodies that almost no one would leave a concert whistling after just attending one performance. But this is how composers hear their music when they are composing: over and over again. Perhaps some composers did not take into account how their music would sound hearing it the first time. And perhaps this is why the minimalist music movement in the generation after Berio rebelled and wrote music that repeated a lot.

Sound becomes music

Margulis also says that the more we hear sounds again, the more they sound like music to us. From her Aeon Magazine article:

"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."
In other words, with repetition the word becomes a kind of abstract musical snippet.

Now, something that Margulis does not discuss is the over-repetition in music and how that can lead to dislike. Maybe she gets to that in her book.

What do you think about Margulis's article?

Vocab: melody, composer, musicologist, earworm, atonal

P.S. Thanks to Will Owen for bringing my attention to this article!

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