Songs on repeat

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Myths / Psychology

We all do it: find a new favourite song that then gets heavy rotation on our playlists. Mine’s currently a Postmodern Jukebox’s 50s prom style cover of Closer by The Chainsmokers. Tara Bautista on the science behind why we choose to play songs on repeat and what happens when we do.

Why we smash that replay button. Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash.


Play it again, Sam

Sixty percent of participants in a study last year admitted they immediately re-listen to their favourite song, some even up to four times in a row.

But what makes a song worthy of replay and why do we do it? One answer is the emotions they make us feel.

A study by the University of Michigan revealed three broad categories of favourite songs and why people were drawn to them.

People whose favourite songs were happy and energetic liked the beat whereas calm songs prompted listeners to reflect and gain perspective. But the most listened-to songs by far were the bittersweet ones. Unsurprisingly, the greater your emotional connection to a song, the more you hit replay.

Certain songs become our favourites because they resonate with us. Listening to our favourite music repeatedly can reinforce our identities, argues Kenneth Aigen, who heads the music therapy program at NYU.

Another answer is that repetition increases how much we like things.

In the 1960s, Robert Zajonc first described a phenomenon called the ‘mere exposure effect’. We tend to like things – be it pictures or melodies – more, the second or third time we come across them.

We rate songs familiar to us as more likeable than unfamiliar ones. Since our brains are faster at processing the sounds during re-listens, we are ‘tricked’ into thinking the ease of recognition is a positive thing. Familiarity also increases our emotional engagement with the music.

What’s more, repetition and familiarity with the music allows us to actively participate and not just process the sounds.

Professor Elizabeth Margulis, author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, says “Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next.”

Indeed, brain imaging studies show that other parts of the brain besides those which process sound light up when we listen to familiar music. These include brain regions that anticipate where the song is going and those usually associated with body movement. Our mind effectively ‘sings along’.

Neuroscientists have also described two stages when we listen to music that gives us the chills. The brain’s caudate nucleus is excited during the build up to our favourite part. When the peak hits, another part called the nucleus accumbens releases the feel-good brain chemical dopamine.


Can’t Get You Out of My Head

There are songs you deliberately play again, and then there are earworms.

Earworms, or involuntary musical hallucinations, are short bits of music that we hear on a seemingly endless loop in our heads. They’re usually songs we’re familiar with and they can be set off by mental associations. For example, parents of toddlers may see the word ‘shark’ and automatically hear ‘doo doo doo doo’.

Turns out you’re more likely to experience earworms if you listen to music and sing on a daily basis. Also if you show obsessive-compulsive traits and score high in openness to experience.

Psychologists analysed data from 3000 participants who were asked which songs gave them earworms. Popular and recent songs were among the top ten, with Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance taking out top spot.

The researchers then analysed MIDI files of the reported earworm-inducing songs to see what features they had in common. On average, the songs were upbeat with a melody that is both familiar but unique in terms of the intervals between the notes. In other words, the melody has to sound like something we’ve heard before but different enough to remain interesting and memorable. 

I Will Always Love You (… or not)

You’ve listened to it more than a dozen times now, but suddenly your favourite new jam isn’t such a hit. What gives?

Most pieces of music that we’ve liked initially, but then are overexposed to, follow the classic Wundt curve. This is a when the pleasantness of an experience increases for the first few times but then decreases with further exposure. (Pharrell William’s Happy, anyone?)

As our brains figure out the complexity of the song, the novelty wears off and we become bored.

This might be why more complex pieces of music like Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (coincidentally number seven in the list of earworms) have longer-lasting popularity, according to music psychology expert Dr Michael Bonshor.

Although simpler song structures are catchier in the short-term, more complex layers of harmony, rhythm and vocals provide more opportunities to keep our brains interested.

And as for getting rid of earworms?

Some researchers suggest singing another song, like God Save the Queen, or Karma Chameleon.

But then again, karma karma karma karma karma … d’oh!

Links and stuff


  1. Oh boy, I’ve certainly given a few songs a good bashing over the years – if only I were to be paid a dollar for each repeat.

    It’s funny the whole repeat thing. I find that my eldest daughter and I have a tendency to kill a song, but my partner and youngest are less prone to incessant repeat. You know when you’ve gone that one repeat too many when you start to get strong verbal abuse from the back seat of the car – it used to be ‘are we there yet?’ 🙂

  2. Anurika says

    I liked your writing style..very detailed and backed up by all the sources.

Please, let me know what you think.

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