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Saturday morning quotes 6.4: Repetition

June 11, 2016

RepeatThere is a great deal of repetition in our daily lives—in the familiar routines we follow from our waking moments, as a means of safety or efficiency in our work, or as embodied in rituals of worship.  Repetition is an important component of the process of learning and refinement, from a toddler taking his or her first steps to a violinist who is driven to internalize Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas.

Of course music is the glue that binds together the physical and the ephemeral and, while we may be unaware of it, has a nearly constant presence in our lives.  Historically, music was always considered a science and was closely allied with mathematics and astronomy as a means of describing diverse concepts like the physical world, our emotional states,  planetary motion, God.  Music as a science conveys logical concepts but bridges the chasm that lies between logic and emotions.  When it evolves from theoretical information on the page to occupying the world of audible sound, music is both transformative and transformational.

Repetition in music can be seen as a necessary component of a practice routine that builds and refines physical mechanical response, a very important aspect of physical conditioning when one is trying to master a difficult instrument like the violin or the lute.  But repetition in music takes on a different meaning and status in the context of music and the human emotional response to audible sound.  This sort of repetition concerns both the structure of music and the basic human desire to tend toward the familiar.

“Repetition serves as a handprint of human intent. A phrase that might have sounded arbitrary the first time might come to sound purposefully shaped and communicative the second.”

“By tracing and retracing a path through musical space, repetition makes a sequence of sounds seem less like an objective presentation of content and more like a kind of tug that’s pulling you along. It captures sequencing circuitry that makes music feel like something you do rather than something you perceive. This sense of identification we have with music, of listening with it rather than to it, so definitional to what we think about as music, also owes a lot to repeated exposure.”

“Repetitiveness actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical. It carves out a familiar, rewarding path in our minds, allowing us at once to anticipate and participate in each phrase as we listen.”

– Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, “One more time

But some may have a love-hate relationship with repetition and familiarity.

“Music has two ills, the one mortal, the other wasting; the mortal is ever allied with the instant which follows that of the music’s utterance, the wasting lies in its repetition, making it contemptible and mean.”

– Leonardo da Vinci, quoted from Edward MacCurdy, The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, The Reprint Society, London, 1954, Vol. 2, p.401.

In addition to his tremendous skill in execution, Leonardo had a restless and fertile mind, and was unlikely to have been content to remain at rest and analyze his emotional response after hearing the same bit of music 100 times.  But Leonardo was an example that illustrates the maxim, Exceptio probat regulam, and he would probably fit much more comfortably in our modern times; an age of sound bites, short attention spans, and constant exposure to new information. There is no small irony in the fact that Leonardo invented or at least described a recording device not unlike the Edison cylinder (circa 1900), pointing the way toward a mechanical means of mass marketing familiar and repetitive music.

For those of us deeply involved in old music, repetition is the key that unlocks the meaning of the music.  A reasonable thinking person appreciates and values innovation but also invests in thoughtful analysis and the sometimes painstaking process of careful examination of the familiar.  While an inquiring mind leads to discovery, a quiet mind leads to understanding.


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