This confession has been weeks, if not months, in the making. I have been listening to Mass Choir’s most recent album, Circles, more or less on repeat, since my interview with Terry Tran (who mixed the album) in October. Circles is fantastic… obviously. I have to emphasize this point: I’ve had it on repeat for 3 months. I’m slowly weaning myself off of it – not like, a 12 step program or anything (because I don’t have a problem) - but just because I’ve realized the extent of this obsession. So, I’m writing, not only to tell you about how amazing Circles is (and why you should all listen to it on repeat for 3 months), but also to explore the idea of repetition in popular music.
First, the review. Mass Choir has made Circles available in its entirety on SoundCloud - I think this is a brilliant marketing move, as after I had listened to the album in it’s entirety 5 or 20 times, I made my way over to iTunes and bought the album for, I believe, less than $10. In case you didn’t click the SoundCloud link, let’s get started with the album’s opening (and title) track – “Circles”:
“Circles” is an almost 6 minute introduction to an album that’s sure to make you move. You’ve got your piano, your guitar, lots of hand claps, and smooth female and male vocals which combine into an incredibly uplifting song. Unlike most pop songs, the beat – and vocals – really starts at about 1:30 into the song, and aren’t really interrupted for the rest of the album. ”Circles” transitions without stop into “Dance Until You Feel Alive”:
“Dance Until You Feel Alive” is probably my favourite track of the album. It’s the first song of theirs I purchased (October 5, 2011, if anyone’s keeping track), it’s the song I’ve played the most on the album, it’s the song that puts a jump in my step when I’m walking down the street listening to music, it’s the reason I can’t stand still when waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk, it’s what I put on when I’m dancing around my room. But how could you not? Backing track that sounds like someone cheering aside, I think it’s impossible not to sing along to lyrics like, ”With your eyes closed, eyes closed/ singing the notes like they’re transposed, transposed/ moving your feet like they’re superimposed.”
The only low point on this album, for me, is the song “Get Together.” The third track on Circles seems to lose some of the momentum built by “Circles” and “Dance Until You Feel Alive” – the beat is completely different than on the rest of the album, and the vocals are not so much sung as spoken. That said, it’s a fun song to see performed live. When Mass Choir opened for USS in December they performed “Get Together” third in the set, and it proved to engage the (reluctant) crowd. So, if you remember my original intent of the article, maybe you’re sensing that I’m getting to my second point – talking about repetition in pop music. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that I’m not a huge fan of “Get Together,” but can’t stop talking about every other track on the album (which all use similar backing tracks and beats). Does this beat hit some sort of pleasure centre in my brain? And if so, am I addicted to it?
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying songs should have no repetition whatsoever. I remember from my music lesson days that repetition of a melody helps hold together all pieces of music, whether they’re popular or classical. By the same token, I’m not saying that music shouldn’t have an identifiable, or regular, beat.
Let’s get into the psychology of repetitive music for a second. It’s common knowledge that, for many people, listening to music is one means of de-stressing. One interesting study that I found states that preferred music lowers tension – regardless of whether that referred music is “excitative” or “sedative” (pg. 35). Somewhat intuitively, the study found “sedative music did lead to lower physiological arousal than did excitative music… Specifically, the sedative property of music was related to anxiety reduction more than was preference.” (pg. 35). Okay, so “relaxing music” relaxes us. Make sense. However, the same article cites a study that found that “even excitative music showed a decrement of tension and an increment of relaxation with repetition. As repetitive exposure increased music preference (Bartlett, 1973), Iwanaga et al (1996) considered that preference increment might cause anxiety reduction by repetitive exposure” (pg. 36). So, if you’re not the type of person who enjoys sedative music (like me), then listening to excitative music on repeat actually relaxes you… Interesting!
But why do we listen to music on repeat? According to a study done at the University of London, our brains continuously predict the next notes of a song. The more music we listen to, the more likely our brains are to try and predict the notes of a song. The way we’re hardwired means our brains like it when they are right about something they predict, since, according to Dr. David Rock, “uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or ‘alert’ response”. However, being able to predict something goes past feeling comfortable, and into the zone of addition. Rock states, “like an addiction to anything, when the craving for certainty is met, there is a sensation of reward… The pleasure of prediction is more acute when you listen to music based on repeating patterns. The ability to predict, and then obtain data that meets those predictions, generates an overall toward response” (para. 7). What exactly is creating those “toward” responses? According to a study published in January 2011, it’s our favourite neurotransmitter – dopamine! The study found that when music-lovers listen to their favourite music, their brain injects them with dopamine – effectively creating a natural high.
Essentially, when we listen to music on repeat – especially songs that have internal repetition – we are just like the animals put in Skinner’s box. A short musical phrase we hear repeated within a song makes us feel good – by flooding our brains with dopamine – so naturally we want to keep hearing that musical phrase by repeating the song. But as the song is repeated, the song itself becomes a musical phrase and we want to repeat the song – not just the initial short phrase – over and over again. If this music happens to be fast-paced pop music such as Mass Choir’s album Circles, the more the album has been repeated, the more relaxing it is for you to listen to it.
What all of this tells me is that it is perfectly understandable and normal to keep an album on repeat for 3 months… I couldn’t help it! It’s just biology!