Why Do We Listen To Our Favorite Song Over and Over?
    • WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2016

    • Posted by: Kirsten Spruch

    I have a problem: my father won't stop listening to Adele. Laugh all you want, but it's a serious issue. He has her entire discography on repeat 24/7 - he plays "Hello" right when he wakes up, he plays "Someone Like You" while he eats lunch, and he finishes off the day with a (very loud) sing-along session to "Turning Tables." And when he's not screaming along in the comfort of his own home, he's looking up YouTube videos of her live performances on his iPhone. This has been going on for months now, and so I finally decided to ask myself, "is my dad crazy?" I did what any troubled daughter would do, and I Googled it.

    Apparently, listening to the same song or artist over and over again does not make you crazy. In fact, it's pretty normal for most people. There's a science behind it.

    In 2014, NPR talked about music psychologist Elizabeth Margulis' little experiment with Luciano Berio's Sequenza IXa For Clarinet. He was famous for his work, which was considered genius level, but Margulis took it and, with a computer editing program, randomly chopped up little bits and made it more repetitive. She had no intention to make it sound necessarily "appealing," just repetitive. And after having people listen to both her version (randomly cut by some psychologist) and the original version (a masterpiece by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century), most came back with a shockingly surprising response: They liked the computer-generated, repetitious version better. And they didn't think it was done by a computer, either.

    There are several different reasons behind this.

    One is the mere exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon whereby people feel a preference for people or things simply because they are familiar. As humans, we tend to feel more hesitant towards things we have no familiarity with, but if there's a song you've heard before, you'll be more open to it. It brings a sense of comfort. If you came home after a long day of work, you might be more likely to pop in that Fleetwood Mac record that you've been listening to since you were twelve, because you've heard it a million times before, ever since you were twelve, and that is reassuring. That's how major labels brainwash you into liking a song, by getting extra radio time and forcing it on every Spotify playlist that comes up in the "Discover" section. And this effect doesn't just work with listening to music. Let's say you had a job interview in a place you've never been to before and you were nervous about it. A good trick to get over this is to go see the location where the interview is taking place beforehand, so that way, when the day comes, you know what to expect and can be comforted with that knowledge.

    But the mere exposure effect isn't the only way to get a person warmed up to something. After all, I saw a billion (I may be over exaggerating for the sake of my argument) pro-Donald Trump signs during my five day stay in Tennessee, plus saw the man himself on TV all the time while growing up, and was no way in hell voting for him - let alone warmed up to him. Another factor that comes into play is anticipation. Let's be real, humans are pretty egotistical creatures. We take pride in our names and have this undying need to always be right, and when we're able to sing the next line before the artists themselves get to it, that might be their way of proving their self-proclaimed intelligence. For instance, my dad will start singing the chorus to Adele's "Hello" while Adele herself is still on the first verse, which is (sorry Dad) his way of trying to impress the people around him. C'mon Dad, having an extensive knowledge of Adele's discography is not exactly something that your friends will be envious of.

    Another factor that's actually kind of cool, is that repetition allows you to pay more attention to detail. When you listen to a song for the first time, you listen to it as a whole on the surface. But after several listens, you begin to hear it differently - maybe your ears hone in on the subtle high-hat in the distance, or even the breath the singer takes between each line. It can also work the opposite way - after listening to it so many times, it can begin to act as background noise, allowing you to enter a different reality, and doesn't that actually sound pretty nice? Jonathan Curiel at KQED can confirm, "I've listened to Montgomery's Impressions recording for as long as an hour straight, usually as I write articles. The flow of words, and my concentration and energy levels during the process, are much, much better for it."

    Repetition is everywhere. Not just in pop music, but it's also in pretty much every other type of music all over the world. You can find repetition in the books you read and the movies you watch. I disagree with Einstein, who said insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. Repetition can make you better. Things do change over time. It takes more than one round of water to keep a plant alive. Humans are creatures of repetition, and all for good reason. So next time I hear my dad hit the play button on "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)," I'll try to not freak out and realize instead that, it's completely normal and my dad actually isn't crazy. At least not on this front.

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