What, what, what…?


Hear this now, O foolish people,
Without understanding,
Who have eyes and see not,
And who have ears and hear not
.

                                     Jeremiah

I would not ordinarily open an essay with a biblical quote, but there can be wisdom in poetry, not to mention melody in sound. It may be hidden, unless it is pointed out -background only. A pentimento that only emerges after scratching the surface.

But, most of us are content with surface -it is enough if it is beautiful; we seldom feel a need to disturb what gives us pleasure. Or to question why it does. To dissect it further is merely to look at its parts, when it is surely the whole assemblage that we enjoy; there is no need to dissemble a watch to look for the Time it declares, no need to see if there is a better painting underneath the one we have already come to love…

But, sometimes… Sometimes there are surprises -epiphanies that only add to our admiration. I discovered an essay in a random journey through the online publication Aeon by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis that was just such a revelation. Epiphanies are like that, though, aren’t they? https://aeon.co/essays/why-repetition-can-turn-almost-anything-into-music

At first I was sceptical about her explanation of why I might like a particular song. The fact that I might have been exposed to it multiple times seemed insufficient -had I not liked it, I would have tried not to listen to it again if possible. And yet, ‘Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before,’ she writes -an ‘exposure effect’, presumably.

But, apparently, ‘evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music. To begin with, there’s the sheer amount of it. Cultures all over the world make repetitive music. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois counts repetitiveness among the few musical universals known to characterise music the world over.’

Now that is intriguing. And even more so, ‘repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song.’ You have to listen to the examples Margulis has linked to her essay to appreciate this. Or, to prove the effect for yourself, ‘Ask an indulgent friend to pick a word – lollipop, for example – and keep saying it to you for a couple minutes. You will gradually experience a curious detachment between the sounds and their meaning. This is the semantic satiation effect… As the word’s meaning becomes less and less accessible, aspects of the sound become oddly salient – idiosyncrasies of pronunciation, the repetition of the letter l, the abrupt end of the last syllable, for example.’ Soon, it takes on a musical quality.

‘You’d think that listening to someone speak and listening to someone sing were separate things.’ But, ‘the exact same sequence of sounds can seem either like speech or like music, depending only on whether it has been repeated. Repetition can actually shift your perceptual circuitry such that the segment of sound is heard as music.’ Wow!

‘The ‘musicalisation’ shifts your attention from the meaning of the words to the contour of the passage (the patterns of high and low pitches) and its rhythms (the patterns of short and long durations), and even invites you to hum or tap along with it. In fact, part of what it means to listen to something musically is to participate imaginatively… When you hear something as music, you aren’t so much listening to as listening along with.

Anthropologists have recognized a similar phenomenon in rituals –‘stereotyped sequences of actions.’ These ‘also harness the power of repetition to concentrate the mind on immediate sensory details rather than broader practicalities… ritual creates a distinct attentional state in which we consider actions on a much more basic level than usual. Outside of ritual, individual gestures aren’t usually interpreted on their own terms; they are absorbed into our understanding of the larger flow of events. Ritual shifts attention from the overall pattern of events toward their component gestures.’

And, as Margulis writes, ‘This is precisely the way that repetition in music works to make the nuanced, expressive elements of the sound increasingly available, and to make a participatory tendency – a tendency to move or sing along – more irresistible.’

Not everything can be made musical by simply repeating it, of course -it seems to be a unique property of sound. Ritual may involve sound, or be accompanied by sound, but by itself it is not musical… It’s the repetition of sounds that changes its character and becomes melody… Interesting.

For those of us old enough to remember that 1960ies song ‘Duke of Earl’ and its hypnotic baritone “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…”, it was almost impossible not to join in on the ‘Duke’ part of the chorus. Few of us remember the rest of the lyrics, or the melody -if there even was one- but its bang, bang, bang repetitiveness earned it a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.

It makes me wonder if something similar is the trick of really charismatic speakers -especially politicians. Persuasive speakers often repeat slogans over and over; they may even encourage their audience to join in if it doesn’t occur spontaneously. Perhaps they realize they can play on the semantic satiation effect in which the sound ceases to convey  its original message, and becomes as memorable, as irresistible as a song. As emotional as a song.

After all, in many religious services the cleric calls on the congregation to chant a ritual response to the reading of selected sacred verses -the religious version of the politician’s ‘whipping up’ the crowd. Including them in the fervor, involving them in the music.

It’s hard not to be carried away by music –in music- when you are helping to produce it. When everybody in the congregation is producing it.

As Margulis concludes, ‘Repetitiveness… carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen. That experience of being played by the music is what creates a sense of shared subjectivity with the sound.’

Yes, yes, yes… I hear you.

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