LAI, Kevin: Repetition in Popular Music

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When judging the artistic merit of a piece of music, people assess its originality and creativity. These qualities are often contrasted with repetitiveness or uniformity. Yet why is repetition considered a negative quality? The standard criticisms of repetition were more or less elucidated by sociologist Theodor W. Adorno. These come down to repetition representing a standardization and repetition leading to regression, rather than progression. While these points have some validity, repetition can also be viewed as having positive effects. For example, a certain amount of repetition is necessary to establish a meter and give sense or order to a piece of music. This and other factors can lead repetition to be a positive aspect of a musical piece. There is a substantial body of work on repetition in music, and these will provide further direction for analysis and later for experimental design. I feel that it will be enlightening to investigate this aspect of music that so often is dismissed off hand as primitive.

Popular music is often dismissed as being overly repetitive or all sounding the same. However, perhaps these criticisms are overly superficial in ignoring these forms of music that perpetually fuel a multi-billion dollar industry. The aim of this study is to analyze the effects of this repetition in rhythmic cognition through a variety of techniques. This could be accomplished through analysis of brain patterns through techniques such as electroencephalography, through sensorimotor synchronization exercises, or through physiological listener responses to repetitive music. Ideally, such types of studies could give a better idea of how repetition can affect a listener’s perception of a piece of music. Some potential effects of repetition that might be shown would be increased attention to smaller level rhythmic changes or more long-lasting or deeper-level internalization of a rhythm.

Annotated Bibliography
Garcia, Luis-Manuel. 2005. “On and On: Repetition as Process and Pleasure in Electric Dance Music.” Music Theory Online 11 (4).

  • Overview or background of discourse on repetition
  • Repetition represents a type of “process,” which Garcia defines as one of three types of pleasures.
  • Multiple layers of repeating loops, especially when they contain conflicting meters, allow the listener to design his or her own process for listening and shape their own experience, since no stream is necessarily preferred when many loops are playing
  • Prediction and anticipation exist in a slightly different form in repetition. There are ways to anticipate changes in electric dance music (EDM).
  • Hypermetric organization comes more into play when loops repeat many times
  • There exist extra-musical benefits of repetition such as dancing and socializing

Large, Edward W., and Mari Riess Jones. 1999. “The Dynamics of Attending: How People Track Time-Varying Events.” Psychological Review 106 (1): 119–159.

  • The effects of repeated regular stimuli increase attention at the next predicted event onset.

Lerdahl Fred, and Ray Jackendoff. 1983. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1–35.

  • Basic background model for accents
  • Establishing meter involves matching an acceptable meter to a given pattern of accents. “Pattern” implies repetition, thus meter needs repetition to be established

Leydon, Rebecca. 2002. “Towards a Typology of Minimalist Tropes.” Music Theory Online 8 (4).

  • “Becoming” vs. “being” in repetitive music
  • Contrast between discursive and musematic parts where “agency is temporarily explored and then relinquished”
  • Repetition as representing different types of “tropes:” Maternal, kinetic, mantric, totalitarian, motoric, aphasic

Middleton, Richard. 1990. Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. p 269-292.

  • Background on popular music in musicology: criticisms of popular music and philosophies that apply to popular music
  • Gives various “repetition strategies” on a continuum from discursive to musematic strategies

Parncutt, Richard. 1994. “A Perceptual Model of Pulse Salience and Metrical Accent in Musical Rhythms.” Music Perception 11 (4): 409–464.

  • Basic background model for pulse
  • Pulse salience described—repetition could have an effect on pulse salience