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.

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