"Dad, can you please play another song?"
The request came on a recent Sunday morning from my 14-year-old son, as I was in the kitchen listening for the 12th straight time to Wes Montgomery’s 1965 recording of John Coltrane’s "Impressions" -- a whirlwind of sensational guitar playing, complemented by bass (Arthur Harper), piano (Harold Mabern), and drums (Jimmy Lovelace) that lift Montgomery’s chords into the sonic stratosphere.
But this gem of musical dervish-ness -- Montgomery and jazz at their best -- is only three minutes and 37 seconds long. I want the song’s feeling to last much, much longer. And I have the power to do that, by changing the YouTube URL just a tiny bit. In a few seconds, I’ve commanded my computer to repeat the song ad infinitum.
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.
But it raises two questions: Am I disrespecting Montgomery’s original 1965 performance by using it as a kind of background music? And is it cognitively normal -- not to mention socially normal -- to listen to so many songs (from Natacha Atlas’ "The Righteous Path" to the Super Rail Band’s "Mali Cebaolenw") on repeat, day after day after day? For the latter question, I consulted On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, a 2014 book by University of Arkansas professor Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, who directs the school’s Music Cognition Lab. What I found is that yes, it’s normal. Perfectly normal. And the more I study the issue, the more I find people with whom I have this “musical repeatism” (my phrase) in common.
Usually, they’re what I’d call “creative types,” as with architect Zaha Hadid, who before her death in March told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program about her propensity to play films and songs on a loop while she painted and did other work. Among her favorite repeated films: American Gigolo, the 1980 movie starring Richard Gere as a high-paid escort. “Unfortunately,” Hadid said, “I get stuck on one thing; for example, music. I like one song, and will play it over and over again, like forever, until I absolutely can’t listen to it anymore.”
So for Hadid, familiarity ultimately breeds contempt, a cycle that Margulis touches on in On Repeat, when she writes that re-listening to songs “increases pleasure for a certain period and then reduces it. The relationship between exposure and enjoyment, in other words, is nonlinear.”
In still other words: Repeated songs can be like a quick affair. Intense. Personal. Pleasurable. Over. But that’s not quite right for me. The affair never really ends. It’s only on pause, until you’re in the mood again. And then the relationship begins anew. My relationship to repeated music centers on the trance-like state that it puts me in. Repeated songs help me focus. They lift me into a higher state of consciousness, accentuating the physical state that’s often needed to create something on a blank canvas. On repeat, the right songs (like Mazzy Star’s "Fade Into You") can also slow me to a meditative state. As Margulis puts it in her academic way, repetition has a way of “fostering an intimate connection to the music while bypassing conceptual cognition and allowing the sound to seem ‘lived’ rather than ‘perceived.’”
Musicians themselves, of course, dwell in the world of repetition. "Impressions" relies on a repeated two-note piano pattern that anchors the song at the beginning and the end. Coltrane borrowed that pattern from Miles Davis’ 1959 song "So What," from Davis’ Kind of Blue album, on which Coltrane was integral on saxophone. As jazz scholar Lewis Porter has observed, Coltrane’s original "Impressions" also repeats a musical theme that’s very similar to one found on composer Morton Gould’s 1939 song "Pavanne."
But repetition can be a contradiction both for musicians and those of us who listen on repeat. Many musicians, especially as they get older, don’t like playing their big hits over and over again. Miles Davis hated it. Coltrane’s whole career was about pushing forward -- not looking back and repeating songs like "Impressions." In his book How Music Works, David Byrne of Talking Heads speaks for many celebrated musicians when he says, “We don’t want to be stuck playing our hits forever, but only playing new, unfamiliar stuff can alienate a crowd -- I know, I’ve done it.”
Still, Byrne speaks of the public space where musicians and fans intersect. My repetition exists, thanks to headphones, mainly in a private space, where the repetition is mine and mine alone. On those rare instances when I listen without earbuds, my musical repeatism becomes an issue. To me, the practice is less obnoxious than headphone listeners who sing badly and off-key as they repeat the words of their favorite songs. I want nothing to do with that kind of repeatism. Good repeatism is a thing of utter beauty. Andy Warhol’s Eight Elvises and Campbell’s Soup Cans are visual allures because of their repeated motifs. In How Music Works, Byrne traces the history of “encores” to the 18th century -- to the Italian opera house La Scala, where sometimes-unruly crowds would yell for the performers to come back and play another song. In the timeless film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s angry, drinking character has to plead for his pianist to repeat "As Time Goes By." None of us have to plead and yell anymore -- and certainly not in public.
Rather than breeding contempt in music, familiarity breeds comfort. In On Repeat, Margulis cites another professor’s calculated estimation that “99 percent of all listening experiences involve listening to musical passages that the listener has heard before.” None of us want to be Sisyphus, repeating the same task over and over again. None of us want to listen to one song for the rest of our lives. But none of us want to hear “I love you” just once, either. In the right relationship, we want to hear it again and again, day and night. Repeated songs have a positive effect on the brain; they’re a post-modern phenomenon that produces ecstasy on demand. “Encore” becomes automatic.
Websites now exist to document the waves of repeated music that people listen to. These songs are the tracks of our lives, letting everyone know that “musical repeatism” is alive and well. It was always there, of course, but now it’s an embedded part of the culture that is as public as we want it to be -- a selective trait that allows repeating a song to take us higher and higher until we’re high enough to stay. When we come back down, we're ready to repeat another song. Over and over again.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED