Listen again! Why do people listen to music repeatedly?
June 24, 2008 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Why do people enjoy listening to the same music much more often than they enjoy watching films or reading stuff repeatedly? How come children usually grow out of watching favourite videos over and over, and having favourite stories they want read to them, but remain happy to repeatedly listen to music?

Watching films or particular episodes of TV shows over and over again is dull. Reading a book over and over is also dull. I'm happy to watch a film I've like again, but only after a year or two has passed. The same thing with reading books. But most people listen to the same music much more often than that. Commercial radio stations are pretty much built around this concept and have playlists that put particular songs into high rotation.

I don't think this is an issue with the duration of these things. I'm happy to listen to the same albums again without the same kind of gap between listenings as with other media. And I'm not happy reading a short-story or magazine article on anything like as regular a basis. I suspect this holds true with most people. Part of the reason people find commercials - even clever and amusings ones - annoying is their repetitiveness.

Children often have videos that they'll watch over and over again without getting bored, or particular stories they like to have read to them. The same kind of behaviour in adults would be considered obsessive. But they don't grow out of liking to hear the same songs repeatedly. Why does our tolerance for repeated exposure to film and stories change as we get older, but not our tolerance for songs?

Is there a neurological reason? Can it be explained by some interesting yet unverifiable evolutionary psychology narrative? What gives?
posted by xchmp to Science & Nature (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For me, I think it's because (a) music is so much more in the background than TV or movies--I can tune out the music and focus on other activities. With film, I have to focus entirely on the activity at hand. Can't do anything else. And (b) I think the melody of music really lends itself to repeat listening -- I like to sing along while I'm in the car (or, uh, home alone), and unfamiliar music doesn't lend itself to that.
posted by elisabethjw at 7:24 PM on June 24, 2008

Possibly because you can listen to music and do other things, whereas reading or watching a movie requires a lot more attention. You can listen to a song 100 times and still get stuff done; it provides a pleasant background track for whatever you're doing. But if you're reading or watching a movie, it's not really a background activity.
posted by phunniemee at 7:24 PM on June 24, 2008

Because listening to music doesn't require our undivided attention. We can listen to music while our brains are engaged in any number of other things (exercising, cleaning house, cooking, yardwork, visiting with friends, having sex, writing a thesis). But watching a movie or reading a book, even one that we've seen or read a thousand times, requires more attention, so repeated viewings/readings aren't as easy as listening to music.
posted by amyms at 7:26 PM on June 24, 2008

I don't have a science answer, but my guess is that, with novels and film, we view them for the story first and foremost. Once we know the story, know the twists and turns, we can never enjoy it quite the same way again. Not that we can't enjoy it, but not the same way. So we add distance to allow us to recapture that as best we can.

But music, we don't get an intellectual stimulation from, but an emotional one. Music gives us happiness and sadness. It prompts memories, both specific and vague. Our brains use it as a springboard to all kinds of thoughts and emotions.

And we don't tire of emotional triggers the way we might tire of a particular tale.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:26 PM on June 24, 2008 [8 favorites]

Well, songs are 3 to 5 minutes long and they can immediately evoke a specific emotional response. Movies and TV shows are obviously much more of a time investment and can their emotional responses are more complicated.

I will say this: TV dramas have much less rerun potential than TV comedies, I suppose both because they're shorter and because their emotion response (laughter) is more specific (and arguably more enjoyable) than a drama. This is why Seinfeld reportedly earned over $500 million for the rerun rights alone of his show.
posted by sharkfu at 7:29 PM on June 24, 2008

I think music is more interactive. You can dance to it, and sing to it. You can also project yourself into it more than you can books or film, I think. You can definitely project yourself into those things, but they tend to have characters far more prominently than most music does. The majority of lyrical songs stick to pronouns, like "I" or "you" or "he" or "she," and they can be anyone to the person listening to it.

If you break up with someone, for example, you could watch a movie about similar people. You could read a book or a story about similar people. But it's hard to beat wailing along to a song that describes your feelings. It's much easier for a person to make music about them.
posted by Nattie at 7:31 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with John Kenneth Fisher. Most of the other forms you mention are narrative. A huge part of what makes stories interesting is not knowing what's going to happen next.

Though paintings can have narrative aspects, they are less narrative than novels or movies. So I'd add them (and other non-narrative visual arts) to the music category. Many people look at the same paintings on their walls for years without tiring of them.
posted by grumblebee at 7:32 PM on June 24, 2008

Oh, and I should add: music tends to tackle a single, broad emotion. In that sense, it's instant gratification for however a person is feeling. It's not as easy to fast-forward through a movie or find a passage in a book. Also, it's instant gratification for however a person wants to feel. If I'm depressed, I can either put on a dance or an uplifting song, or I can turn to a book or movie for a few hours and wait until it reaches a point that makes me happy.

Furthermore, since the emotions are so broad, and mostly untethered to anyone or anything too specific, it's easier for a song to be relevant to a person multiple times than it is for a book or movie.
posted by Nattie at 7:36 PM on June 24, 2008

Up until the advent of filesharing networks, if you wanted to avoid listening to songs more than once, that was very expensive. I have an uncle who only listens to most albums 2-3 times and as a result he has some tens of thousands of records in his tiny apartment in LA. This kind of thing just isn't sustainable for anyone who wants, say, a family. Total earthquake hazard.

If you go out to see a movie, you don't have to store anything. A book can take hours to days to read before you put it on the shelf, and you can resell it or donate it to a library. If you buy a record and you only want to hear it once, well, that's 40 minutes of enjoyment, probably $10-20 down the tubes if you buy it new, and now you have to find someplace to put it or someone who will buy it - at this point most libraries wouldn't even take records, and music resellers are few and far between. As my poor uncle can attest, it can be done, but it isn't a pleasant life and it takes a special sort. It just isn't practical.

I think the other reasons people have given above are also quite good reasons, but from a financial standpoint, if you pay for music, it is almost impossible to avoid hearing songs more than once if you like having music on.
posted by crinklebat at 8:04 PM on June 24, 2008

I think I'm a bit slow, musically speaking, but I actually need to listen to music multiple times in order to even comprehend it. I can hear a song and then hear it again the next day and not recognize it. It takes multiple listens before I recognize it and can place it and can start really appreciating it as a song. To the extent that there is an analogy with narrative, I can listen to the song over and over again because for a while at least I don't know how it's going to end. And then, once my brain has assimilated it, I'm quite happy to listen some more because listening to familiar music is pleasant in a very different way than listening to unknown stuff that I have trouble even really hearing.
posted by yarrow at 8:06 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that learning would reduce the appeal of repeatedly reading the same book or watching the same movie -- we have it now, we can move on -- but emotions are something experienced anew over and over throughout life, each time they're felt. The novelty's left the story, but hasn't left the feeling. Which also makes sense given that we tire of our own stories more slowly, because we re-experience them at some level when we tell them.
posted by notashroom at 8:06 PM on June 24, 2008

Yarrow is right, there's a specific pleasure that comes from listening to music you already know. You can sing along to it, certainly, but there's also a joy in anticipating the harmonies and chord changes. It's also a sort of relief if you're someone who pretty much always has a song stuck in your head.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:33 PM on June 24, 2008

Best answer: I like more complicated music, and I listen to it many times over, but I listen a different way each time. I might follow the drum patterns, or the harmony line, or any number of things. I might compare successive variations on the same basic part for differences. I can play several instruments (badly), so I can imagine more of what's going on there, just like a baseball game is more interesting to a baseball player. Turns out I can only pay attention to one thing at once, so it takes a while to wring all the interesting-ness out of a song I like.

A movie or story is more about the suspense of not knowing how it's going to turn out. Once I've seen it, meh. I've seen it. On the other hand, I know people in the theater arts who can watch films over and over, watching different things each time - set design, lighting, choice of shots, etc.
posted by ctmf at 8:45 PM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Music is simply better than the other arts.

There, I said it.
posted by pompomtom at 8:50 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can associate and re-associate music with events, time, feelings, places, and other life experiences. Movies and books require undivided attention and so they don't necessarily have direct connections to those things.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:04 PM on June 24, 2008

with novels and film, we view them for the story first and foremost.

But music, we don't get an intellectual stimulation from, but an emotional one.

This is the answer. I think most people experience music as more of a sensory pleasure. It's like food. You like it because it tastes good. If something tastes really good you can eat it frequently and not get bored of it. Some films are meant to be experienced this way as well, but by and large our culture views film as a narrative medium. I think that for most people, reading the script of a film would approximate viewing the film much more closely than reading a score would approximate hearing the music.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:09 PM on June 24, 2008

Music isn't plot driven. Knowing how it ends takes a certain amount of pleasure out of watching plot driven entertainment.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:15 PM on June 24, 2008

I would argue that your premise is that a universal truth. My daughter (now in college) seldom listens to the songs from 4th or 5th grade but she re-reads her most favorite books from that time about once a year each. Plus, when we are both feeling nostalgic, we don't put on a record, we start quoting Robert Louis Stevenson and other well-loved poems from her (and sometimes my) childhood.
posted by metahawk at 9:21 PM on June 24, 2008

Why does our tolerance for repeated exposure to film and stories change as we get older, but not our tolerance for songs?

Time seems to be a pretty big factor for me. I actually don't think I've 'grown out' of wanting/liking watching films and reading stories repeatedly. I still watch some films repeatedly (i.e. watching the same film repeatedly, with not more than maybe half an hour's break in between, about 3 times) when I have the time. And sometimes, if I like a book that I've just finished reading, I just turn back to the front page and read it all over again... etc. But watching films and reading books takes more time than listening to a typical contemporary song today. (I can still watch short video clips (youtube!) again and again, though. But then again I'm not sure how normal or typical my behaviour and preferences are...)
A typical pop ('pop' in the 'popular' sense) is not more than 5 minutes long, and professional songwriters intentionally keep pop songs short in order to sustain the listener's interest (or, to avoid 'losing' the listener). I think there are currently less people out there that like to listen to half-an-hour songs repeatedly than people who are apt to listen to 3 to 5 minute songs repeatedly. And I remember Kara DioGuardi saying in an interview that her criteria for writing a good pop song was included being able to imagine herself wanting to listen to the song on repeat if she were a young teenage girl (or something along those lines). So you actually do have a lot of professional songwriters out there intentionally creating music that is deliberately designed to make you want to hear it repeatedly (I guess it's very profitable, for one thing...). Not all types or forms of music are the sort that most people would want to listen to repeatedly, but a lot of music seems to have developed in this direction during the past century. I think other artforms have also tried to do the same in terms of catering to a shorter attention span and a greater demand/expectation of instant gratification with less brainwork involved, etc - like the "Hollywood" style of film editing vs, say, more 'arthouse'-y styles (e.g. a snappy series of fast cuts that lays out all the information in the scene for the audience quickly vs long tracking shots that require more sustained attention and patience from the audience to discern the situation in the scene)... but with less success (wrt 'repeatability') than music. (Not that film can't achieve something similar...; I was just thinking of 'Titanic' and how hordes of teenage girls went to the cinemas again, and again, to watch it...)

And I also agree with John Kenneth Fisher and sharkfu.
posted by aielen at 9:27 PM on June 24, 2008

Best answer: I'd posit that music is an older form of expression than the other media you mentioned. In it's rawest, earliest form it was a communal experience and being a part of the music perfomance albeit banging sticks against rocks etc. glued groups of people together. Anyone who's ever played as part of a band or even sat on a beach with some friends and a few sets of bongo's or sat around a campfire singing songs knows that feeling that you get after a while of being a part of something and losing your identity to the group. That moment that when it ends makes everyone exhale and grin sheepishly at each other. That makes you feel like you've just woken up from being involved in something extraordinary when you were no longer merely yourself but were a cell in a larger organism.

I'd guess that music plays to an older, deeper part of our brain than the newer media you mention and that the repetition is part of that in that in order to be able to get into the place I mentioned before you have to know the music inside out or at least the rules of it.

I might be wrong.
posted by merocet at 10:04 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

A song can sound different and evoke different thoughts and emotions each time its listened to.

It can also be useful to trigger and reinforce beneficial behavior -- ex. exercising, focusing on work/studies.
posted by hitopshelf at 10:16 PM on June 24, 2008

I'd guess that music plays to an older, deeper part of our brain than the newer media you mention and that the repetition is part of that in that in order to be able to get into the place I mentioned before you have to know the music inside out or at least the rules of it.

I might be wrong.

I don't think that has much to do with it. Storytelling (i.e. films and novels) has been around since ancient times as well. But music and stories are experienced in different ways.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:42 PM on June 24, 2008

Best answer: There is a book written that addresses this question directly. I have not read the book, but I went to the lecture given by the author, and suspect that the book will both have a good theoretical discussion backed by latest neuro-research, and also be really fun to read.

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

Another book that I have not read but would guess is very likely to address your question is Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by the ever-amazing Oliver Sacks.

An amazon search brings up other books in similar vein.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 10:49 PM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'd guess that music plays to an older, deeper part of our brain than the newer media you mention and that the repetition is part of that in that in order to be able to get into the place I mentioned before you have to know the music inside out or at least the rules of it.

I think there's something in this. It's worth noting that a lot of music (certainly most contemporary music) is repetitive within the song - even if you listened to a song just once you would would still in effect be listening to the same thing(s) several times.
posted by cincinnatus c at 1:46 AM on June 25, 2008

Watching films or particular episodes of TV shows over and over again is dull.

This is not true for me any more. I wonder if the era of TV on DVD is changing other people's tastes the way mine have changed. If I'm doing some mindless work at home, or housework, or just stressed out and trying to lull myself to sleep, I will put on the same DVDs of The West Wing that I've seen hundreds of times now. A few years ago, it probably would have been music, but now I find a familiar TV show more soothing.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:57 AM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would posit that the type of response has more to do with it than the length of time or the amount of attention required. There are certainly pieces of classical music that demand the attention in a similar way to novels or films, and can take up roughly comparable lengths of time yet bear repeated listening in the same way as other forms of music.

I am someone who does reread and watch over (and conversely I have plenty of music I have only listened to a handful a times, if that. I also have a low tolerance for repeated playlist formats) but I do approach an upper limit with films and novels.

Poetry however easily bears (and arguably demands) re-reading, and I would suggest is received in a way that is as close to music as it is to novel reading: in it's sonority and the way poetry often works though a kind of direct evocation of emotion and imagery, absent of plot.
posted by tallus at 4:24 AM on June 25, 2008

Watching films or particular episodes of TV shows over and over again is dull. Reading a book over and over is also dull.

Not for me. I love reading the same books over and over -- I would rather read 1 favorite book 10 times than read 10 different books only once. There are also movies I watch over and over -- in fact, if a favorite movie I own shows up on television, I will often drop everything and watch it, even though I own it and can watch it any time I want to. I will also keep the same music cassette tape going in my car for weeks (right now it's Duran Duran) until I finally change it for something else.
posted by JanetLand at 5:30 AM on June 25, 2008

I can second reading This Is Your Brain on Music. It answers that question as well as many others about humans intense connection to music. And it does it with contemporary examples. I seem to recall a complex neurological process being demonstrated with Roxanne from The Police.
posted by lpsguy at 5:57 AM on June 25, 2008

music repeats. What is the difference between repetition of a chorus, etc, within a song, and listening to the song daily.
posted by Good Brain at 9:31 AM on June 25, 2008

Certain songs make me feel a certain way -- upbeat, positive, focused, etc. One of the reasons I listen to certain songs again because I want to feel that way again.
posted by qvtqht at 1:25 PM on June 26, 2008

An extra data point: People actually like songs MORE each time they've heard them, up until a burnout point. That's why commercial radio plays the same thing over and over again, despite the constant complaints about doing so—because Arbitron polling data dictates that the song is still being enjoyed. And that's a big part of why people tend to fixate on the music of their youth—they don't invest the same amount of time in repeating the song once they get older. As far as an explanation to this phenomena, I can only spitball that the repetition is a learning process, to where the song can be recalled.
posted by klangklangston at 10:55 AM on July 6, 2008

« Older Flight of the Conchords vest?   |   Hip, trendy pregnancy blogs? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.