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Repetition in music pulls us in, together

November 5, 2013
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
A researcher explores the psychology of repetition in music, across time, style and cultures.

In On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the University of Arkansas explores the psychology of repetition in music, across time, style and cultures. Hers is the first in-depth study of repetitiveness in music, which she calls “at once entirely ordinary and entirely mysterious” and “so common as to seem almost invisible.”

Repetition in music can be a motif repeated throughout a composition or a favorite song played again and again. It can be the annoying earworm burrowed into the brain that just won’t go away.

Music, she writes, “is a fundamentally human capacity, present in all known cultures, and important to intellectual, emotional and social experience.” And repetition is a key element in music, one that both pulls us into the experience and pulls us together as people.

In her research, Margulis drew on a range of disciplines, including music theory, psycholinguistics, neuroscience and cognitive psychology, to examine how listeners perceive and respond to repetition. She worked with ethnomusicologists to understand the place of music and its repetitive features in cultures around the world.

On Repeat is published by Oxford University Press. The Kindle version is available already, and the hardback publication will ship on Nov. 11, 2013.

A repeated musical motif can build pleasurable expectations in the listener, pulling them into the experience of the piece of music.

“Repetition makes it possible for us to experience a sense of expanded present, characterized not by the explicit knowledge that x will occur at time point y, but rather a déjà-vu-like sense of orientation and involvement,” Margulis writes.

Through repeated playing, a work of music develops an important social and biological role in creating cohesion between individuals and groups. Margulis points to children in nursery school singing a cleanup song each day or adults singing Auld Lang Syne at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

“Repeatability is how songs come to be the property of a group or a community instead of an individual,” she writes, “how they come to belong to a tradition, rather than to a moment.”

On Repeat offers new insights into the relationship between music and language, the nature of musical pleasure and the cognitive science of repetition in music. While the book will be useful to scholars and students, it is written for specialist and non-specialist alike.
Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis is associate professor of music in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

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Materials provided by University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis. On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. Oxford University Press, 2013

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University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "Repetition in music pulls us in, together." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 November 2013. <>.
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