Earworms (interview on BBC Radio 4)

I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, talking with Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis about her book ‘On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind’ (Amazon link).

BBC Listen Again link.


It was an interesting discussion, and I thoroughly recommend the book for those who are interested in the psychology of music. Elizabeth’s own lab experiments are fascinating, particularly her rather mischievous (but successful!) attempt to ‘improve’ the music of Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter.

In a 2012 study, I asked participants without special musical training – everyday music listeners – to listen to excerpts from challenging contemporary art music (atonal pieces by Luciana Berio and Elliott Carter) and rate on a 7-point scale how much they’d enjoy each excerpts, how interesting they’d found it, and how likely they thought the excerpt was to have been compostable human artist rather than randomly generated by a computer. Unbeknownst to the participants, mixed in with the original excerpts were adaptations of them stop in these adaptations, segments of music had been extracted and reinserted to add repetitions of some material; repetitions that could occur immediately or after some of the music had intervened […].

Listeners rated the immediate and delayed repetition versions as reliably more enjoyable, more interesting, and more likely to have been composed by a human artists rather than generated randomly by a computer. Even roomfuls of PhD-holding music theorists, when presented these examples at the meeting of the Society for Music Theory (Minneapolis, 2011)– an audience sympathetic to Berio and Carter if ever there were one – confessed to finding the repetitive versions more likeable on first pass. This is a stunning finding, particularly as the original versions were crafted by internationally renowned composers and the (preferred) repeated versions were created by brute stimulus manipulation without regard to artistic quality. The simple introduction of repetition, independent of musical aims or principles, elevated peoples enjoyment, interest, and judgements of artistry. This suggests that repetition is a powerful and often underacknowledged aesthetic operative.

Margulis, E. (2014). On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind, Oxford University Press, 15-16.

Elizabeth’s book also introduced me to some other interesting research, notably Diana Deutsch and the ‘Speech to Song Illusion’ (try it here and hear melody in speech forever thereafter!).


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