Over and Over: The Danger of Repetition in Music


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Is it just me or do you always get that incessantly repetitive tune or beat that bores into your brain and you unknowingly hum it for hours on end? After a while, it fades away from your brain and relief settles in. But without you realising it, you have triggered it yet again and erupts back into the forefront of your mind like that of a worm niggling in a rotten apple.

Can’t Get You Outta My Head ..

The Earworm Concept

Well, more like an earworm, I suppose. The ear worm concept, brainworm, sticky music or stuck song syndrome, is a concept first coined in the 1980s, but is far from new. Musical composers have been trying to mimic repetition and force melodies in the minds of their listeners for decades. This has nonetheless become easier to tap into as we have entered into the 21st Century.

“Half of us are plugged iPods, immersed in daylong concerts of our own choosing, virtually oblivious to the environment – and for those who are not plugged in, there is nonstop music, unavoidable and often of deafening intensity, in restaurants, bars, shops, and gyms.

This barrage of music puts a certain strain on our exquisitely sensitive auditory systems, which cannot be overloaded without dire consequences.”

– Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, 2007
Always plugged in ..

The Overload

It’s this barrage that is seen to be illicit in our ear holes. Of course, this much is obvious. Listening to the same song or same genre repeatedly wherever you go, will undoubtedly end up in our heads.

Moreover, it can be seen as an “involuntary memory,” where we tap into it when it evokes certain emotional memories or impactful representations. We can listen to the same song a hundred different ways with a hundred different representations, but the consistency of remembering the melody or pitch is rather remarkable.

Of course, this is not coincidental of course. For years, music has been developed by the industry to remain “hooky” or “sticky” in your brain for hours on end, just like a catchy advertisement or a neon billboard, constantly trying to drive your attention back to that catchy chorus yet again. Some may say, in fact that the melody or drive of a song can impact our memory more so than words can.

But, does this cause damage to our songs that we don’t about? These brainworms can soon begin to interfere with work, eating and even sleep. With this repetition, you can imagine it will start to lose its charm, its musicality and more importantly, its meaning.

All Meaning Lost

Is this industry plan of getting these songs catchy, doing the opposite of what they wish for them to achieve? Does this plan ultimately cause the song to lose its meaning and more importantly, its originality? If it is stuck in our heads, how soon does it become annoying from when you first listened to it, seemingly enjoying it?

Does this make music less enjoyable by how catchy it is?

We fall for it and we love it ..

What is happening, psychologically and neurologically, when a tune or a jingle takes possession of one like this? What are the characteristics that make a tune or a song “dangerous” or “infectious” in this way? Is it some oddity of sound, of timbre or rhythm or melody? Is it repetition? Or is it arousal of special emotional resonances or associations?

Oliver Sacks, Musicolphilia, 2007

The extremity of these earworms have caused people for their livelihoods to be swamped by the same constant musical loop of a song, often have tried coming up with coping mechanisms such as talking aloud, covering the ears, washing the face and even playing the song again all the way to the end. It seems that these efforts relax the earworms but undoubtedly, come back again stronger than ever.

At the end of it all, we are attracted to this repetition, we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. It is the same reaction waiting for the chorus to come around or finding the song ends on the right chord. It is when it doesn’t end on the right chord, do we question its integrity.

Sometimes then, it is less of a liberty but to something we have accepted over time. The instant access to music everywhere since the rise of film and TV, has allowed to connect more so but has cost us the retribution of overloading our auditory systems and sometimes – complete hearing loss, more often in musicians themselves.

Over and over and over and over and over,

Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal,

The joy of repetition really is in you,

Hot Chip, Over and Over, 2008

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