Why We Love To Listen To Music Over And Over (Until We Don't)

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You probably wouldn't want to listen to a person speaking the same thing over and over and over. So why would you want to listen to the same song again and again? Yet research has found that generally the more that people hear a song, the more they like it -- unless, of course, they listen so much that they end up liking it even less than when they started. 

This topic is just one that's covered by Elizabeth Margulis, Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas in a new book, On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind. In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Margulis explains about why repetition and music are so closely intertwined. 

Interview Highlights

Dr. Margulis, on why hearing music over and over generally makes humans like it better (up to a certain point): 

It's kind of incredible, because musical preference seems like something so subjective and so personal. So it's quite stunning that you can find this effect robustly across lots of different people for lots of different musics. You can just present people a song -- the first time, it's not that exciting. In fact, you might disdain the song a little bit. And as it continues being played in movie theater lobbies or over your speaker system at your gym... you can't resist moving along a little bit. It's really gripped you, it's absorbed you in a way. And part of that is because you really know exactly what's coming next. You're able to think and listen ahead to the music in a way you couldn't at first. 

The evolutionary reason that could be behind why our brains like to know what's coming next in a song: 

You can imagine a clear biological rationale for a preference like that. If you have encountered something before, and you're encountering it again, it's obvious it didn't kill you the first time you can see why we might have evolved a tendency to be attracted to things we've experienced before. 

On why people historically have tried to disguise repetition in music: 

People are often nervous or embarrassed about music's repetitiveness. Scholars in the 19th century, for example, got together and said, part repetition -- this practice where you'd have the exposition in a sonata, and then you'd repeat it afterward -- they thought that was really embarrassing. They said, look, you wouldn't take a novel and repeat the first chapter. You wouldn't, when you're giving a speech, say what you just said in the last paragraph again. That would be childish -- or it would be maybe insane! They were trying to make music seem more legitimate and intellectual -- they tried to downplay its repetitiveness.

I think we might be in a position now to say, instead, let's face the fact that music is really repetitive and understand what's going on there and try to look at the processes involved rather than shoving it under the rug and pretending it's not there.