Tag Archives: Repetition

Symmetric Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to science writer Philip Ball, roughly ninety-four percent of music lasting more than a few seconds contains verbatim repeats. This is true of music-cultures scattered throughout the globe. Indeed, despite the astonishing variety of expressive sounds culturally defined as music, repetition appears to be a unifying characteristic. On the micro scale, repetition derives from alternating longer and shorter note values, sometimes with pauses in between. If extended, these temporally balanced blocks merge into macro patterns: ostinati, verse-chorus form, sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), thirty-two bar form (AABA), and so on. Repeated rhythms and melodic/harmonic lines are also heard in through-composed works, flowing ecclesiastical chants, and patchwork songs, such as “Fingertips” by They Might Be Giants, comprising twenty-one short songs of five to twenty seconds apiece.

On the small and large scale, repetition yields symmetry: a sense of pleasing proportions. Symmetry is a fundamental aspect of beauty. Biologically, left-to-right symmetry in the face and/or body is a generalized indicator of physiological and psychological health. Thus, the most symmetrical people are considered the most beautiful (eye-of-the beholder arguments notwithstanding). Likewise, we are attracted to well-proportioned patterns of nature—flora, fauna, and geological—and repelled by their opposite.

To a significant extent, art is indebted to the mathematical symmetry present in nature. Nature-imitative patterns are woven into pottery, poetry, architecture, and musical repetition. Contrastingly, modernist movements that intentionally frustrate our pattern-seeking brains tend to provoke negative responses. (In the works of Pierre Boulez, for instance, references to other music are expunged as far as possible.)

However, over-redundancy has its own problems. Occasional deviations can be welcome and gratifying surprises, so long as the pattern is quickly retrieved. In music, agreeable breaks are typically achieved through truncation (subtraction of metrical units), prolongation (addition of metrical units), or elision (overlapping of two symmetrical units). It can also result accidentally. For example, during a performance of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1974, Charles Mingus and his band of all-stars (George Adams, Hamiet Bluiett, Jon Faddis, John Handy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles McPherson, Don Pullen, and Dannie Richmond) botched the AABA form under Bluiett’s baritone sax solo. The musicians played three A sections in a row in one chorus, and just one A section in the next. In Montréal, these gaffes are known as a “three-headed monster” and a “one-eyed beauty,” respectively. The “three-headed monster” emerges again in the last chorus of Pullen’s piano solo. These errors, hardly unusual during jam sessions, rarely spoil the music. They are (usually) amusing anomalies, which temporarily rupture, but never dismantle, the predictable pattern.

The attraction of symmetry in music is self-evident. All human cultures have music, virtually all of that music contains repetition, repetition creates symmetry, and all cultures consider music aesthetically rewarding. Moreover, music that discards symmetry is often called “ugly,” with some challenging its very musical-ness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Seeking Patterns

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

We are pattern-seeking mammals. We are uncomfortable with unanswered questions, and discontent with the apparent randomness of the world around us. We look for familiar images in clouds, stereotype groups of people, categorize things of nature, see faces in inanimate objects, latch on to conspiracy theories, match objects and colors, decode languages, and find comfort in easy resolutions in literature and film. The impulse to locate (and fabricate) order can be traced to the formative stages of humanity. Our ancestors’ survival depended greatly on their ability to detect patterns in sense data. Snap judgments of hunters and other tribespeople determined whether they would pursue or flee, explore or hide.

Rather than leaving us, the hunter instinct has expanded into all conceivable areas. Nearly every moment of our waking life is spent making quick decisions, classifying information and uncovering (or inventing) structure in observable phenomena. We derive safety and stability from the order we discern, and are attracted to things displaying overt patterns. This is partly why we are drawn to music.

According to science writer Philip Ball, around ninety-four percent of musical selections lasting more than a few seconds contain recurring material—and that only includes verbatim repeats. This calculation applies to music as disparate as electronica and Inuit throat singing. Repetition is among music’s most defining elements, and one that helps us distinguish musical sounds from other audible stimuli. Far from being a source of boredom or irritation, repetitious phrases, relentless rhythms and recurring melodies can be an endless source of enjoyment. They satisfy a primal need.

David Huron, a researcher in music cognition, has connected the pleasing patterns of music to instincts implanted in us by evolution. As noted, the ability to develop and act upon expectations is fundamental to survival. In all animals, survival rate is proportional to accuracy of anticipation: the more correct the assessment, the more advantageous the response. When accurate, gut feelings lead toward prey and away from danger. We have acquired this mechanism of rewarding good predictions. With patterns comes predictability, and with predictability comes pleasure. Guessing right is utterly gratifying. Musical repetition caters to this tendency.

The fact that repetitious music gives us satisfaction is evidenced in the genres that become popular, as well as those that linger on the margins. In the West and elsewhere, tonal music—in its multitudinous forms—is the most agreeable branch of the art form. It encompasses blues and rock, Baroque and Classical, folksongs and lullabies, ragas and marches. Such genres have almost universal appeal. In contrast, atonal music, avant-garde jazz, noise music and other postmodern approaches reach far smaller audiences. They deliberately dispose of conventions and challenge musical expectations, thereby eliminating most of what attracts the average listener to music in the first place. These styles are not without internal logic or a degree of self-styled repetition; but they do not pander to our evolutionary longings.

It is possible to overstate the delight gained from musical patterns. Pleasure is accentuated or diminished depending on one’s affinity, disdain or indifference for specific music. But the general assessment holds: we desire the predictability music provides.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.