thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: repetition

Notes On Elizabeth Margulis’s “On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind”


I began reading this book like a runner hitting a downhill, rushing forward with exhilaration and abandon, carried along by the gravitational pull of my interest in its subject. My initial read-through was quick, and I’ll certainly be returning to its pages, walking back up the uphills to take in the details. To say the least, I’ve been waiting for a book like this for a long time!

Elizabeth Margulis’s On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind is an expansive and scholarly investigation of repetition in musical experience. Drawing on the literature and approaches of music psychology, neuroscience, musicology, and linguistics, Margulis explores what it means that repetition is so deeply a part of music and our musical lives. “Why is it that we accept, even enjoy, degrees of repetition in music” the author wonders, “that would be repugnant in almost any other domain?” (4) This fascinating question guides On Repeat to unravel how repetition both works within music and works on us through music.

There are two kinds of repetition in our experience of music. The first exists within pieces of music themselves. On the micro-level, sound is vibration, and vibration is repetitive oscillation. On a more macro-level, there is repetition within all kinds of musical patterns (e.g. a drum beat, a guitar riff, a piano vamp) and among sections of music, such as theme and variations, recapitulations, verse-chorus refrains, and so on. A second type of repetition resides in the fact that “we tend voluntarily to re-expose ourselves to familiar pieces, again and again and again” (4). Here and elsewhere in the book, Margulis cites some of her own research that shows how when we listen to a piece of music repeatedly, that repetition triggers “an attentional shift from more local to more global levels of musical organization…so that the music doesn’t seem to be coming at the listener in small bits, but rather laying out broader spans for consideration” (9). In other words, we return to favorite pieces of music to understand them better through “a heightened sense of orientation and involvement” (ibid).

Among the many insights of this book, I was intrigued to learn that repetition is one of the things that suggests how communication cannot be music’s primary function (13). “Imagine” says Margulis, “hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony once, and being done. Or hearing a five minute summary” (ibid). The repetitive aspect of music then, is not to convey information, but rather seems bound up with the aesthetic function of non-linguistic sound (14). Or put another way: the pleasure we find in musical repetition “might stem less from increasing knowledge about the piece than from a growing sense of inhabiting the music: a transportive, even transcendent kind of experience” (15). Listening to a piece over and over again affords “a changed sort of orientation toward the work” (15). And the fascinating thing about great music is how it seems to afford endless re-listenings.

On Repeat is full of insights like this as Margulis explains layer after layer of repetition’s power. In another of her case studies, we learn how repetition added to any piece of music elevates “people’s enjoyment, interest, and judgements of artistry” (16). Something about repetition’s intrinsic declamatory quality reassures us that a piece with repetition is more forceful and effective–as if the music has something to say. “As musical phrases repeat, listeners gain access to more nuanced, communicative aspects of the sound” (21). Maybe as we return to favorite pieces of music, we gain (an illusory?) sense that we understand what it’s trying to say to us. Such is one of the charms of music’s ambiguous relationship to meaning. Margulis also considers the relationship between musical repetition and memory. As bits within a piece repeat, or as we repeatedly listen to musical bits, repetition serves as “a kind re-presenting, a kind of prosthetic memory, whereby past events are put once more before the ears” (21). Repetition then, helps us recall what just happened in a piece, or in the case of musical “earworms”, is the presence of a piece that simply won’t leave our minds.

Reading On Repeat as a practicing musician I was particularly struck by passages that point towards some of the deeper perceptual effects of repetition. Repetition is a kind of engine that reveals hidden qualities in music, “driving attention to otherwise perceptually inaccessible qualities of the sonic surface” (80). This is interesting, right? Drawing on examples ranging from Brahms to sampling in hip hop, Margulis shows how repetition has the power to transform our experience of music’s very fabric. As we repeat any musical segment what was once perceptual background becomes foreground. To take an example from speech, repeated hearings of the same nonsense word has the effect of making the word’s nonsense “replaced by a sort of super-salience of the component parts”–as if “speech had magically been transformed into music” (17). Likewise, music repeated can become almost speech-like in its capacity to conjure felt meaning. In this regard, repetition is sly and subtle: by revealing new aspects of music’s sonic surface, it can create “some impression that registers as an expressive quality, rather than as explicit recognition of repetitiveness” (35).

There’s much theoretical and empirical richness and subtlety in On Repeat that will reward repeated readings, and Margulis has amassed a giant corpus of scholarly work with which to cast her inquisitive net. Music is the canonical domain of repetition (4), and On Repeat explores the myriad reasons why this should be.

On A Note That Just Won’t Quit: A Great Big World’s “Say Something”

Every so often I peruse Spotify’s various listening lists to see what musics folks around the world are streaming onto their devices. This time around I clicked on Spotify’s “Global Hits.” Along with some usual suspects–Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (which will undoubtedly become as enduring as “Happy Birthday”), songs by Katy Perry, Coldplay and Shakira, and thumping EDM by DJ Avicii–I found a song called “Say Something” by the band A Great Big World. I had never heard of this band, but then rarely do I usually listen to this kind of music. Music with vocals, that is.

There was a quality of repetition in the song that got my attention. Specifically, a single repeated high D note on the piano that continues as the song cycles through its i-vi-iii-VII chord progression in b minor. No matter what the chord or the details of the arrangement at each moment, that high D note persists. Interesting.

Lyrically, “Say Something” is all about giving up on someone, calling it quits, throwing in the towel. But I wonder if that insistent D in the piano suggests something else? Maybe it’s a representation of the singer’s stubbornness–a hope that things may work out after all, or something like that. Wondering about the signification of such small details is one of the joys of music as its designs and sounds invite us to map meanings onto whatever it is that we happen to notice.

Walker Percy On Repetition

Percy repetition quote

“What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
– Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, New York: Vintage books, 1960.

On Sinister And Dynamic Rhythmic Energy: Laurel Halo’s “Oneiroi”

“I guess I just wanted to record what I was doing live. Basically when I got into the studio to record those tracks I found myself playing around with the patterns more, playing around with the samples more, trying to find what was particularly gripping, or dynamic. I wanted the tracks to have this sinister empty energy; I wanted them to sound quite cold.” – Laurel Halo

Halo’s recent recording Chance of Rain (Hyperdub 2013) is a collection of propulsively rhythmic instrumental tracks. Track two, “Oneiroi”, is a particularly focused piece that packs a constantly shifting punch. The piece moves in 4/4 time at 130 beats per minute. There’s a boom-rumble sound on beat 1 of each bar, low-res 16th-note hi hats insistently ticking away, a syncopated cross stick sound, small shards of cymbals and voice samples on the off-beats, a single tom-tom, and noise ambiance. The 4/4 grid never relents, but the sounds and their patterns keep changing up. The cross stick begins by playing on every quarter note, but gradually melts into a new sound (is it the same one played backwards? pitch-shifted down?) and eventually reappears later on offbeats. The hi hat comes and goes, now open, now closed, the shards of cymbal and voice samples change position, the tom-tom pattern builds up into something that resembles a paradiddle, and the noise ambiance ebbs and flows. Every rhythmic part fits into the 4/4 grid and could function independently as a timeline or bell pattern on its own, and the parts never sit still so the grid sounds dynamic and alive. In sum, “Oneiroi” is a groove with enough continuous rhythmic change happening that its seven minutes fly by.

An interview with Halo about her working methods can be read here:

On Voice In The Tour De France


“Why do you watch this? It’s pretty repetitive.”

“I just kind of trance out.”

“Do you like it because it’s soothing and mellow?”

“Yes! It’s all about the scenery and especially the voices.”

“Okay..Can we watch Wimbledon now?”


When July rolls around, the world of professional cycling rolls into our apt, bringing the bright colors of the Tour de France peloton and the French countryside through the TV and straight into my imagination. I can watch it for hours. I have written before about the Tour, but this year my fervent watching and listening have reconfirmed one of the best things about the event: the commentary and voices of Phil Leggett and Paul Sherwen.

Leggett, who has been commentating for some forty years now, is the steady calm voice of observation. He talks as if viewing the proceedings from a perch at 10,000 feet above looking down, making easy notice of the scenery (“Here they are skirting the Camargue, which is famous for its wild horses and pink flamingos…”). But when the action heats up–a surprise breakaway from the peloton say, or an unexpected sprint finish–Leggett can find a higher gear, raising his voice abruptly and almost running out of air so long and continuous are his sentences that track the unfolding action in a feverish pitch.

Sherwen is a little more intense. There’s an urgent quality to his voice, and he often begins sentences by agreeing with his co-host, but then pointing out a potential difficulty ahead: “That’s absolutely right Phil, but [name of cyclist] has got to pace himself and be very careful here…”–with the emphasis always on the word “got.” Sherwen also has a lower verbal gear in which he recites facts about the passing landscape such the names of centuries-old churches and the precise height of their spires (in European metric). Great TV if you ask me.

As you watch the Tour and listen to Leggett and Sherwen’s commentary, you notice a clear call and response quality to it as their voices alternate back and forth just as reliably as the cyclists’ legs move up and down. Occasionally, when there is a brief (2-5 second) lull in the talk, you can hear the road hum of the bicycles buzzing up and around mountain ranges and the cheering of the spectators lining the course. When either Leggett or Sherwen return to continue weaving their real-time narrative, you realize how important their voices are to making sense of the Tour’s relentless repetition over thousands of miles. Without their voices describing and animating the action, it would just be a very long and taxing ride.

On Using Repetition As A Generative Tool: Yu Yamauchi’s “Dawn”


For five straight months, four years in a row, for a total of 600 days, the Japanese artist Yu Yamauchi lived in a hut near the summit of Mt. Fuji. Every morning at dawn he took photographs of the rising sun, sky and clouds. If you ask me, that’s a cool project.

And the photographs are magnificent.

Yamauchi describes his vantage point at 10,000 feet above sea level as “the threshold between Earth and outer space.” The view, he says in a statement accompanying the photographs, is

“Constantly shifting,
the clouds look like a membrane encapsulating the Earth.
When the Sun rises behind a cloud-forming horizon,
the world that was painted in blue just a moment before
suddenly looks completely different.
I witnessed this magical transformation many times.”

What I find interesting about Yamauchi’s work–notwithstanding the breathtaking photographs themselves–is how it uses repetition as a generative tool. The art maintains a single vantage point and lets the weather of the passing days shape the content of what’s captured in Yamauchi’s lens. The photographer didn’t wait for the perfect day to shoot. Rather, each day he went to see what the rising sun, sky and clouds had to offer. The repetition and variations that mark time’s passing were their own kind of filter–stage one of a process.

You can view Yamauchi’s work here.

On Advice To A Repetition Hater


“Practice, repetition, and repetition of the repeated with ever increasing intensity are its distinctive features for long stretches of the way.”
– Eugen Herrigal, Zen in the Art of Archery

Reduced to its essentials, drumming is fundamentally about repetition.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a drummer. You stand in front of a snare drum (snares off), sticks in hands, poised and ready to play. You raise your right stick about twelve inches above the drum and make a single downwards stroke: waack. Nice. It’s a full and resonant sound and you bask in it for the brief moment of its sharp attack and fast decay. But as a musical event, this single snare drum stroke is cruelly evanescent in that it has disappeared almost as soon as it has sounded. So what do you do?

You strike the drum again of course! But this time you follow your right hand stroke with a left hand one, its mirror image: waack, waack. Using your two hands you have cloned that initial drum stroke, turning one beat into two. Two beats convey more musical sense that does one in that the interval between your right-and left-hand waacks suggests some kind of timing or pulsation. But your left hand following your right was only a one-off occurrence. The whole waack-waack sequence of sound is still quite brief. You want to extend this moment somehow, if only because playing the drum and hearing it sounding is so enjoyable.

You begin striking the drum again and this time you keep your hands moving steady in a right hand-left hand alternation: waack, waack, waack, waack…over and over again. Now something is happening: the repeated waacks suggest a regular pulsation and tempo. They also create their own kind of flow. This feels good. You don’t want to stop playing, for why would you want to destroy your own flow and enjoyment of the drum sound?

So you keep repeating—keeping you hands moving at a steady tempo. As you repeat you notice things that weren’t apparent when you played just a single snare drum waack or two. First, you notice the shape of the sound you’re making. Repetition affords you the opportunity to aurally observe your sound in motion, each waack like a specimen offered for your inspection. Each waack sounds similar, but subtly different too. You notice that your right and left hands don’t make exactly the same sound, and that the waacks change depending on where your sticks land on the drumhead. It’s something to pay attention to simply because it has your attention. Second, as you listen to the drum strokes and the shapes of their resonance, you notice the spaces between the strokes as a kind of negative space created in the brief absence of sound. You never noticed these spaces before, probably because you thought more about the moment of striking the drum. Finally, you notice that the space between your strokes has some relationship to the movement of your hands and arms. Specifically, the spaces align themselves with the upward movement of your hands and arms as they ready the sticks for the next stroke. In a shift of perception, you realize that what you thought was a simple right hand-left hand waack, waack, waack, waack alternation actually has more depth to it and the hand and arm movements required of you to play repeating strokes contain within themselves a way of subdividing the pulsation of your playing. Paying attention to the spaces between the notes and the upward as well the downward movements of your hands you now hear something different: waack (and) waack (and) waack (and) waack (and) . . . Your waacks now feel like a kind of breathing. Through repetition, you are not simply striking the snare drum; you’re keeping time.

Thus, when I speak of drumming as being fundamentally about repetition I mean to say that it only begins to offer its perceptual lessons when we allow ourselves to make a percussive gesture and then repeat it. A single stroke on a snare drum is one thing (and in great hands can be an awesomely beautiful thing). But repeating it, and then repeating that repetition for long stretches allows for an interesting series of transformations in our attention to take place.

On Grateful Sound: Thinking Through “Dark Star”


I have a secret: over the past few weeks while riding the subway with headphones on I’ve been listening to the Grateful Dead. And maybe not coincidentally, I haven’t shaved in about two weeks. So as I write this I’m wondering–Are these twin facts somehow related? Do they point to a strange metamorphosis taking place in me through an alchemy of music and listening?


Formed in 1965 in San Francisco, The Grateful Dead was a peculiar kind of rock band that blended blues, folk, psychedelic-rock, bluegrass, jazz, reggae, country, and free improvisation into a trippy whole that sometimes achieved very musical results. Though they sold some 30 million albums over their 30-year career, what they really liked to do was play live, and in that regard the band seemed to have singlehandedly initiated the “jam band” scene.

I was never a Grateful Dead fan and my lack of fandom, is, I guess, altogether unfair since I never even once listened to the group’s music while growing up. Maybe I was a dormant fan who just didn’t know it yet, but I had a sense that their social-sonic world was something you had to be a believer in to truly appreciate; the music didn’t enculturate you, you had to join its cause–such followers of the group are called Deadhead, by the way–almost with a pre-knowledge of what its makers and its scene were all about. Also, Deadheads seemed to hang with other Deadheads and I didn’t know any in the first place. All this to say that for one reason or another the Grateful Dead never entered my musical orbit.

I began thinking about and listening to the Dead recently after reading a very fine article about them by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. Without being sentimental, the article traces and celebrates the author’s own fandom as he recalls his first experience seeing the Dead perform, describes trading and scrutinizing fan bootleg recordings (or audience tapes) with friends, and hangs out with an archivist who is in charge of the Dead’s vast recorded legacy. Along the way, Paumgarten unpacks the sound and structures of the Dead’s music and explains how, for its devoted fans at least, it has had such enduring appeal. The article raises a question: How does a music become resilient to time’s passing? In the case of the Grateful Dead, their music has lived on mainly through a vast number of live recordings.

Even though I didn’t listen to the Dead, I had long heard that their recordings really don’t do justice to the band anyway; their music was all about a magic conjured in performance. You just had to be there. The Dead had lots of songs to draw on, but what they were famous for was improvising new versions of their material at every concert. Ironically enough, as Paumgarten points out, this group that apparently could only be understood through its performances is best known today for its astonishingly large archive of recorded music which is stored in a climate controlled vault in California. Indeed, having played over 2,300 concerts between 1965 and 1995 “the Dead have more recorded music in circulation than any performing group in history” and there are more than 8,000 Dead recordings on alone. Many of these recordings are audience tapes–the work of fans who meticulously recorded Dead shows. (The Dead encouraged audience taping as a way to spread the good word.) This “immense body of work”, notes Paumgarten, “invites and sustains obsession, and its variability is in some respects the draw.” Obsessive listening invites new perspectives too. Reflecting on his getting to know the musical details of particular recordings of Dead concerts, Paumgarten says that “the music, on repetition, began to feel like something composed, rather than improvised. It took on a life of its own…”

Another irony of the Dead is that it played a “ragged, improvisational amalgam of old-timey American music” amplified through a most sophisticated sound system known as the Wall Of Sound: 600 speakers with an output of over 25,000 watts. Thus, between its thousands of recordings and its famed sound system, the Dead is as good a locus as any for thinking through the story of technology’s impact on our consumption of music over the last fifty years. Even though they looked like hippies, they were postmoderns who were all about the improvised remix–or what Kevin Kelly calls “recombinant” culture–years before this became a guiding idea of contemporary music.


One of the Grateful Dead’s most famous songs–or platform for acoustic recombinant remixing/improvisation–is “Darkstar.” Released in 1968, the song eventually became the Dead’s most anticipated and hallowed live numbers. There was an aura about this song that fans simply referred to as “It”–perhaps due to the fact that Dead stopped playing the piece for many years and then, in the late 1970s, suddenly resumed playing it again. Structurally, “Dark Star” is, as Paumgarten accurately dissects it, just “a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge.” The original studio recording of the song clocks in under three minutes. But like the “head” of a jazz tune, the brief song is just a skeleton for the group’s variations. Thus, various live versions of “Dark Star” range anywhere from 11 to 48 minutes (!) If nothing else, “Dark Star” demonstrates a kind of musical minimalism–or a maximal use of minimal materials.

I’ve spent some time listening to two versions of “Dark Star” on Spotify and YouTube. On Spotify I found a 20-minute recording from the 1972 Bickershaw festival in the UK; and on YouTube I found a 10-minute video of a show in Oregon from that same year. On both versions you can hear endlessly melodic bass wandering and rhythm guitar comping, bits on twinkling piano, tumbling and syncopated drumming, and at times soaring lead guitar. Only on the Bickershaw version does the group’s lead singer and guitarist, Jerry Garcia, get around to actually singing those verses!

Listening to this piece and watching the video I find the music has an interesting sense of active stasis that appeals to me. This stasis is perhaps mostly a function of the guitars and bass staying in that A mixolydian mode. (Detractors might call this kind of thing modal “noodling.”) Also, the medium slow tempo (about 70 bpm) remains constant and its languid pace contributes to the feeling that no one–neither the band nor its thousands of fans swaying out in the Oregon fields beyond the stage–is in any big hurry to go anywhere soon. While a lot of popular music has a goal-oriented teleology–verses bring us inexorably towards the choruses, and so on–“Dark Star” is definitely a different, more patient animal. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s so famous?

To their credit, the musicians manage to keep things fairly (though not always) interesting by constantly varying their parts. Most obvious is Garcia’s endless lead guitar soloing. But listen also to the bass which often stays in an unusually high register, almost dovetailing with Garcia’s guitar. (This is contrary to the bass guitar’s customary role of playing mostly low-pitched notes and thus build a solid “foundation” for the song.) Similarly, the rhythm guitar keeps changing its jazz comping-like riffs, and the drummer Bill Kreutzmann never ever plays any kind of steady back beat on beats 2 and 4; instead, he plays a kind of swinging rhythm. In sum, this kind of group level improvisation is almost jazz-like: it has a constant pulse, it swings, and remains resolutely modal.

Listening to different performances of “Dark Star” I heard a number of beautiful if brief moments of group synchrony and groovy musical thinking. In the clip below, you can hear such a moment from 5:59-6:35. For a mere half-minute, a deep space opens up. Maybe that’s because the bass guitar finally stays still for a moment and lets some nice low A notes ring long. Or maybe the reason is something else altogether. Whatever it is, it’s worth listening to.

Haruki Murakami On Repetition

Haruki Murakami, master novelist and enthusiast of long distance running, makes this observation about the repetition of writing, and the experience of repetition itself as a perceptual tool for tweaking the senses:

“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.

I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

On Lessons From Long Distance Activities Which May Also Apply To Making Music

1. It doesn’t feel great at the beginning.

2. Take it slow at first.

3. Have a plan of action.

4. Add a little each week.

5. Allow time between sessions to recover.

6. The activity itself is discipline.

7. If possible, use the activity as an opportunity for exploration and adventure.

8. Alter your plan of action depending on the specific circumstances of the day. Conditions are never optimal.

9. The longer the activity, the more your mind changes: new thoughts just…appear.

10. Fatigue makes clear the adage “mind over matter.” But still–it hurts.

11. Today sets up tomorrow and another plan of action.

12. Timing things is useful. But so is going by feel.

13. Steady rhythmic movement is fun.

14. Places feel different when you’re moving through them.

15. There is always something more to say, but that something hasn’t arrived yet!


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