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Using Repetition as a Means of Modulating Our Perception and Creating a Hypnotic Effect

Most, if not all, styles of music use repetition in one way or another. Repetition establishes motifs and hooks. It helps to unify a song and serves as identifying factors for listeners. Daniel J. Levitin writes in This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2007):

Memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music. As scores of theorists and philosophers have noted...music is based on repetition. Music works because we remember the tones we have just heard and are relating them to the ones that are just now being played. Those groups of tones—phrases—might come up later in the piece in a variation or transposition that tickles our memory system at the same time as it activates our emotional centers

In the article The Hypnotic Power of Repetition in Music (2017), multimedia artist Chris Otchy mentions that while repetition exists and is expected in virtually all music, it might seem odd in other art-forms. While examples of course can be found, in visual art for example, they are less common. With music, on the contrary, one could argue that the very act of repeating sound, any sound, initializes the process of creating music. Otchy references Steve Reich's piece It's Gonna Rain as an example of this.


In some styles of music, repetition is a more pronounced compositional feature. Examples include minimalist music, western classical music (such as sonata-allegro and rondo), krautrock, disco, house and techno. In electronic music in general, repetition is used to a high degree. In techno for example, repetition is often extreme and repetition itself is one of the main features of the genre. The compositional methods of electronic music, with looping sequencers and samplers (not to mention the session view in Ableton), also lend themselves to create repetitive music.

An overview of my finished piece for this project. As can be seen, repetition of elements has been used as a key compositional technique


When I discovered and fell in love with electronic music, repetition was one of the features which drew me in. I noticed it had a hypnotic effect, drawing me closer to the music, making me focused and centered. I also noticed how my perception of the repeated sounds changed over time and sometimes my mind started to create subtle melodies out of rhythms and fill in blanks. In Difference and Repetition (1994), philosopher Gilles Deleuze presents interesting thoughts on the topic and calls the phenomenon of changing perception of repeated elements passive synthesis.

Although something is identically repeated, the listener hears the second playing as something different from the first. In other words, a physical repetition results in a perceptual difference. What has been experienced is retained in memory and what will be experienced is anticipated because of memory. This perceptual movement of time ‘goes from the past to the future in the present’, according to Deleuze.

I find it interesting to contemplate why repetition in its most extreme forms tends to feel very good and possess ecstatic qualities. In his paper The Emergence of an Ecstatic-materialist

Perspective as a Cross-genre Tendency in Experimental Music (2017), Riccardo Wanke offers a perspective on this.

Repetition can be seen as an integral phenomenon in which sound is a living entity. Cyclic forms and repetition define several aspects of our life (e.g. reproductive cycles) and regular recurrences such as heartbeat, breathing, walking and sleeping. All these shapes encompass the idea of the return to the original state and constitute one of our most basic patterns for experiencing and understanding temporality.

Think of all the repeating patterns we see in the universe from the atomic level to the largest cosmic structures and patterns we know. Structural patterns repeat, and within each 'level' myriads of cyclical patterns are found. For all we know, the creation and possible destruction of the universe may be a cyclical process which would make time circular rather than linear. It is fair to say that repetition goes very deep into the fundamental architecture of the universe and there is something resonating strongly within us when we dance and listen to repetitive music.


As a result of the powerful effects I have experienced from extreme repetition in music, it has been a compositional concept close to my heart ever since I started making music. It is something I was exploring in my piece for this project and it is something I will keep exploring in different ways in my music.

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©2020 by Henri Falk