The Hypnotic Power of Repetition in Music

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Repetition and music are so intimately linked that their relationship seems almost invisible. While characterizing a piece of music as “repetitive” still carries a negative connotation (akin to describing it as “boring” or “monotonous”) repetition is an element of almost every piece of music in nearly every genre. In fact, composers that don’t use repetition must go out of their way to do so. Pick a song composed in the last 100 years and you are almost guaranteed to find passages that come up again and again — usually choruses or refrains. Sometimes they vary slightly; other times they are reproduced note for note, timbre for timbre. As the author and music scholar Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis so eloquently puts it, repetition in music is both, “entirely ordinary and entirely mysterious.”

No other art form so passionately embraces repetition as music. If a writer were to repeat a phrase or a paragraph over and over throughout an essay, one might think he was either mad, or he was trying to create a type of poetic/musical resonance. If a painter or sculptor were to repeat a work over and over, critics might have the same reaction to her work. Yet in music, repetition is expected — encouraged even...

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