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Why we really, really, really like repetition in music

By Estelle Caswell

It slays, okay?

A few months ago, Vince Staples released his second album, Big Fish Theory. It’s bombastic, chock-full of gritty electronic sounds that pay respect to Detroit techno. There are a lot of moments on the album that I love, but there’s one I absolutely can’t get out of my head. It’s the hook for “Yeah Right,” and it sounds like this:

Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right

(Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right)

Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right

(Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right)

Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right

(Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right)

Boy yeah right, yeah right, yeah right

(Boy yeah)

For the fifth episode of Vox Pop’s Earworm, I spoke with Colin Morris and Elizabeth Margulis about musical repetition.

Colin is a computer scientist who created a tool called SongSim that runs pop song lyrics through a self-similarity matrix to visualize musical repetition. He’s also responsible for one of my favorite data visualizations, charting the rise of repetition in music over time.

Margulis has dedicated her career to music research and runs the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas. Her book On Repeat: How music plays the mind delves deep into the science behind musical repetition and explores the many ways our brains react to it.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe for more episodes of Earworm, our series exploring the many sounds that make pop music memorable.

And if you’d like a curated playlist of earwormy repetitive songs, you can follow this Spotify playlist:

…read more

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