The Case of Repetition in Music

Musical repetition is a powerful tool. Repetition has been thought of as a musical universal by Nettl (Roseman, 1984) and has been present in a diverse range of cultures. In western music, there is even a sign within musical scores to denote repetition of bars of music. It is not nearly as common in other forms of art, which was found by Ferdinand Praeger (1958). Praeger greatly criticised the presence of repetition, stating that poets do not fall prey to this device on writing, and yet it is present in music. Some would call repetition childish and regressive and that it is shameful to have in a piece of art. However, this argument has two sides, as any good argument should. Fitch (2006) thought that repetition is a great design device in music that greatly separates music from language. In recent empirical research, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis from University of Arkansas is at the forefront of this understudied and yet important aspect of music.


Repetition in music, when put quite simply, is when sounds or sequences are used more than once during a piece. A famous case of repetition occurs in the Daft Punk song ‘Around the World,’ depicted in the image above. It contains only one lyric and a repeating bass line, thus being a song made entirely out of repetition of simple elements, and yet is a very popular song. There is something powerful about repetition, and when the loop contains something pleasurable to a listener, it can be enjoyed for hours and seem to change as our attention drifts away and returns. Margulis proposed that we not only enjoy repetition, but also need it. Repetition allows for simple pieces of music to take on new semantic meanings. It also allows for listeners to participate by following the beat or even singing or playing an instrument along with a performer. Many different things can affect the occurrence of repetition, and that can in turn affect its influence. Although the notation can be the same in a measure, the timing, the outcome, nuances in playing, semantic satiation or levels of attending can all greatly vary, playing a part in how listeners perceives repetition. Deutsch (2008) found an interesting illusion, whereby repeating a spoken phrase multiple times can sound suddenly musical to the listener, which outlines how powerful repetition is in providing both structure and pleasure to listeners.

Recent studies (in progress) Margulis conducted looked at both elements of structure and listening pleasure by testing the average person’s ability to recognize repetition across repeated listenings and to enjoy repetition in unfamiliar types of music (both of these studies are forthcoming). The first study involved people who were not musical experts listening to classical piano pieces and identifying when they heard a repetition of a segment. The scored repetitions were ‘music-theory ignorant,’ only considering identical notes with identical values as repetitions and not similar motifs or contour patterns. Over repeated listenings, participants moved from recognizing shorter repetitions to longer repetitions (for example, from 1s repeated phrases to 5s repeated phrases). Margulis concluded that attention for repeated phrases moved from small-scale to large-scale, helping listeners to ‘zoom out’ to higher levels of musical structure. A visual example of this ‘zoom out’ ability is demonstrated in the picture below. What is actually just a set of black splotches can be seen as a Dalmatian sniffing the ground in the centre of the image when viewed on the global level. This complements the claim that repetitions aids in shifting focus of attention, serving as a guide for listening to the piece.


The second study looked at hedonic value vs. novelty, which was first proposed by Wundt in 1874. Participants were exposed to original and modified melodies based upon melodies from modern composers Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. The created melodies had either direct repetition or delayed repetition of melodic material, and participants were asked to listen and rate the perceived enjoyability, interest, and artistry of each melody on 7-point Likert-like scales. These non-expert listeners found the melodies with immediate repetition most enjoyable and most artistic, and the melodies with delayed repetition were found to be most interesting. This study seems to suggest that there is an element of pleasure that comes from recognizing repetition, making novel or complex melodies easier to grasp and thus easier to enjoy.

Margulis presented her talk on repetition with great passion. She put forth a compelling and interesting argument outlining the importance of research into repetition and used excellent examples and literature to show why it is central to music. With her upcoming book, Repetition, Music and Mind, there will hopefully be more study and interest sparked in this area, not only for why it occurs but also how it can be used to help understanding and enjoyment of music.

–Paul Atkinson and Lindsey Thompson



Image 1: Daft Punk – ‘Around The World’
Image 2: Dalmatian Illusion The Intelligent Eye, R.L. Gregory, 1970


Deutsch, D., Lapidis, R., & Henthorn, T. (2008). The speech-to-song illusion. Journal of Acoustic Society of America, 124(4), 2471

Fitch, W. (2006). On the biology and evolution of music. Music Perception, 24(1), 85-88. DOI: 10.1525/mp.2006.24.1.85

Praeger, F. A. (1958). The Praeger picture encyclopedia of art: A comprehensive survey of painting, sculpture, architecture and crafts, their methods, styles and technical terms, from the earliest times to the present day. New York: F.A. Praeger.

Roseman, M. (1984). : The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts . Bruno Nettl. American Anthropologist, 86, 2, 439-440.

Wundt, W. (1874). Grundzu ge der physiologischen Psychologie, von Wilhelm Wundt. Leipzig: W. Engelmann.

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