One more time

4 Theodore Robinson (1852 - 1896)  Misia Au piano, 1887

Why do we listen to our favourite music over and over again? Because repeated sounds work magic in our brain.

What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening. But evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music.

To begin with, there’s the sheer amount of it. Cultures all over the world make repetitive music. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois counts repetitiveness among the few musical universals known to characterise music the world over. Hit songs on American radio often feature a chorus that plays several times, and people listen to these already repetitive songs many times. The musicologist David Huron at Ohio State University estimates that, during more than 90 per cent of the time spent listening to music, people are actually hearing passages that they’ve listened to before. The play counter in iTunes reveals just how frequently we listen to our favourite tracks. And if that’s not enough, tunes that get stuck in our heads seem to loop again and again. In short, repetition is a startlingly prevalent feature of music, real and imagined.

In fact, repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song. The psychologist Diana Deutsch, at the University of California, San Diego, discovered a particularly powerful example – the speech-to-song illusion. The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.

Sailing by Ear

absms8_musicI just spent eight weeks working on a screenplay ten hours a day while listening to the same three albums—Popol Vuh: Einsjager und Siebensjager (1974);  The Six Parts Seven: Casually Smashed to Pieces (2007); and the Jerome Morass soundtrack to the 1957 film The Big Country—on infinite repeat. All the tracks were AAC files that I had downloaded from the iTunes Music Store, and I was listening to them through a pair of small, attractive podules that connected to my iMac through its FireWire port. This is, roughly, the setup that I have been using for a long time now, since before there was an iTunes, or an iPod, or a Napster, back when the only MP3s available were those you had ripped yourself. And though I also listen to music in the kitchen, in the car, on airplanes, and while running, given the amount of time that I spend at my desk, and the fact that I listen to music constantly while writing, over the past ten years I have probably listened to more music in the form of MP3s playing through cute little pods placed about three feet from my head than in any other way. So I was surprised, last week, when for no apparent reason, while writing a big Martian air battle scene, I looked up from the iMac’s monitor to one of those cute little FireWire ovoids, as Vuh lead guitarist Daniel Fichelscher attempted unbelievably intricate and beautiful things on the title track of Einsjager, and thought: Dude, what’s with the Fisher Price speakers? 

You might suppose that repetition would have dulled my powers of aural discernment—this must have been the fiftieth or sixtieth time I’d listened to the track over the past two months—but on the contrary it abruptly seemed to have heightened them, to have broken through the dam of convenience, simplicity, and ready access to the music, to have flooded my jaded ear with sudden understanding. I’m no audiophile; I want to say that right off. I have no idea what impedance is, or how to set the levels of an equalizer with any confidence or panache, and I still find infantile amusement in saying the word “woofer.” But it struck me all at once that the sound quality of the music I’d been listening to so heavily, with the indirect attentiveness I give music when I’m writing, was thin, brittle; all sheen and no depth. It was tinny, tiny, and pallid. It sounded like shit, in fact; and not only did it sound like shit, but it had been sounding like shit for years. Shit in the kitchen, playing from a big hard drive attached to an old PowerBook, through a couple of small, flush-mounted wall speakers. Shit, in the minivan and the Prius, patched from an iPod through factory-installed speakers greased over with a scurf of children and their miasmas. Shit, through the endless, vaguely rattling series of earbuds—that nauseating term, with its suggestion of Van Goghesque  mutilations—accompanying me on morning runs and onto airplanes. The digitized music itself  “compressed,” “lossy,” reduced to a state of parity with whatever system I consigned it to. With the possible exception of books, I love music more than I love anything in my life that is not a person or a dog. At one time, I now realized, I had known how to express and indulge and nourish that love: with iron-heavy black records, a fifty-watt amplifier, and a pair of speakers that were themselves pieces of furniture, far too large for any desktop. I hit the space bar, stopping the music, and observed a moment of silence for my own lossy life, and thought about a man whom I had not seen in almost thirty years.