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the strangeness of repetition
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Jan 2, 2022 1:12 AM

When I listen to a musical idea for the first time, it has a particular introductory quality. A new idea has been planted in my mind. A fresh exposition. But when that thing I just heard repeats, something about it feels different. The repetition, though a carbon copy of the thing I just heard, feels like an altered experience. I feel this in all music.

And when it repeats for the second time, the experience of this second repeat feels different than that of the first repeat. The third repeat feels different than the second repeat; The fourth repeat feels different than the third; The fifth from the fourth; the sixth from the fifth...ad infinitum ad nauseam.

There appears to be a distinct function tied to each repetition. For example, it is interesting how the fourth play of a motif generally feels like a resolution of the three previous plays. If a melody line only plays three times, it renders a feeling of unresolved longing with me. I anticipate it to resolve with the fourth play. And as an artist, I can exploit this expectation and extend the tension.

A skilled composer understands the threshold of repeats a musical phrase requires before it begins to sound too repetitive. There is also the risk of not having enough repeats, hereby failing to puncture the idea within the listener’s mind. A song would be incomprehensible if it never repeated. If every bar was an exposition of a new idea it would sound like nonsense, with too much information being thrown around. As a listener, I require repetition to digest what I am hearing. It appears that repetition is an essential ingredient across all forms of music.

By extension, I can zoom out and extend this framework to a full track. The first time I listen to a song I probably won't like it. It may sound too unfamiliar or alien. But as I continue listening, I may end up falling in love with it. I suppose this is what acquired taste is, manifesting across all domains of human experience like culinary arts. It seems like repeated exposure to the same material changes the relationship to whatever it is one is consuming.

So the question is: why is it a different experience? What is it about each repetition that makes it change the feel of things? If I listen to the same song twice but it feels different, is it really the same song?

If I define a song by its DNA, sure it is -- same instrumentation, same harmony, same style, same molecular makeup. But if I define a song as an experience, then I could argue that it is indeed a different song through each new play. And not just in the way it feels, but through objective analysis. I could measure the air between the speakers and my ears as always fluctuating. Or that each new song further burns in the headphone, rendering a different signal. By extension, the room I am in and its residual ambient noise changes my experience of the song. The weather can affect the audio setup I have. I can be as pedantic as I want and argue that no songs ever repeat the same because with each passing moment the universe is a completely new structure.

However, there is a third perspective.

It isn’t so much the song or musical idea changing with each new repeat, or the physical structure of an external universe fluctuating (even though this is true), it is the listener who is changing. The person who listens to a song the first time is not the same person who listens to the song a second time, nor the third, nor the fourth. The guitar motif stays the same from bar to bar. It is I who changes.

But what is it that changes about me? Memory. It is memory that defines these repeats. It is memory that allows for each repeat to have its distinct function. In fact, memory is what gives meaning to the word "repetition" in the first place. For, to be aware of a repeat is to remember the very thing that is being repeated.

Memory appears to be the driving factor that influences the signature of my experience with every new repeat, whether it is a short musical idea, full song, or film. I always wish I could watch a film again for the first time. And because I am strange, I like watching the same film over and over again, picking up on different things along the way. So memory not only functions to remind me of what I have heard but also functions to free up the bandwidth of attention for me to pick up on new things from repeated exposure.

Memory is so important to my perception of audio that without it there would be no real music in the first place. I can imagine a thought experiment in which I suffer from extreme short-term memory loss, and only remember one bar of any song. If my memory resets after each bar, I would have the sensation that I was hearing it for the first time over and over again. The function of each bar would collapse into an introduction.

And I can extend this collapse further and further.

I can imagine myself to have an even greater degree of short-term memory loss that resets upon every note I hear. Call it a super-extreme short-term loss. Let's say I am listening to a 5-note melody line. If my memory resets after hearing just one note, I would not be able to comprehend the totality of the melody. For, the existence of the entire phrase of the melody line depends on the relative nature of each note. The contour of the musical phrase is only digested by the mind insofar as it can create a sense of direction and interlink between each note of the motif. So a person with a 1-note granular memory will only hear each note as if it were the first note.

The only way in which harmony and rhythm would ever make any sense is if there were previous chords and beats prior to it. If you had no memory, every beat in a bar would always sound like the first beat. Every chord would feel like the tonic. And this would nullify any feeling of tension and release or linear movement from bar to bar. Every bar would sound like the first bar, and every section of a song would sound like the first section.

I suppose this is what insanity feels like–a sensation of arriving at the same conclusion over and over again as if it were the first time.