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

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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

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“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

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“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”

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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


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“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.