The Science Behind Why We Listen to Our Favorite Songs on Repeat

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Fact, 90% of the music we listen to is music we've heard before.

Why, when there are hundreds of thousands of songs released each year, do we choose to listen to the same ones over and over? The reason may be rooted in science.

"Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next," professor Elizabeth Margulis, author of the recent On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, noted in an interview with Mic. "A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise. In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved."

You play songs on repeat, then, because it feels as if you're singing it. It's that sense of anticipation that happens in the listener, what Margulis calls "virtual participation." It's a similar participation to something that follows a narrative structure, like reading a book or watching a movie over again. It's similar to as if you were creating the music with your mind — as if it were a part of you.

Cover of "On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind" by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis  Oxford University Press

To some extent, that relies on something known to scientists as the mere exposure effect. The principle is simple: We like things just because we've heard them again and again. That same principle is behind the music industry's ability to brainwash listeners into liking songs simply by buying up radio plays. The industry has used the science of earworms, too, to build unbeatable pop songs like current No. 1 "All About That Bass" — 98-99% of the population report having had a song stuck in their head before, and often they're songs with repetitive melodic lines (try reading "All about that bass / Bout that bass / No treble" without singing it). But Margulis notes that the mere exposure effect is much more than some anonymous mental mechanism. The music we want to play again and again is a clue to how our minds are made and who we are.

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"Depending on our musical backgrounds and personality," Margulis explained, "one of us might enjoy listening to the same simple chorus again and again and another of us might only want to hear the most avant-garde selection several times. Most of us are obsessive listeners to some degree or other."

Ultimately, it seems that playing a song obsessively is at the heart of how music becomes a part of you. That's because repetition allows us new ways of listening — ultimately making us feel more connected to the music. 

"Not only do all known human cultures make music, but they all make music where repetition plays a defining role," Margulis added. "Especially in unfamiliar styles, repetition helps teach us how to listen. It shows us what the important thematic entities are, and helps us parse the musical surface."

And, as Margulis sees it, new musical technology has made repetition virtually impossible to ignore. It's at the core of why music means so much to us.