ArticlesNo. 96, Fall 2013

A Psychological Approach to Musical Form: The Habituation–Fluency Theory of Repetition


With the possible exception of dance and meditation, there appears to be nothing else in common human experience that is comparable to music in its repetitiveness (Kivy 1993; Ockelford 2005; Margulis 2013). Narrative artifacts like movies, novels, cartoon strips, stories, and speeches have much less internal repetition. Even poetry is less repetitive than music. Occasionally, architecture can approach music in repeating some elements, but only some- times. There appears to be no visual analog to the sort of trance–inducing music that can engage listeners for hours. Although dance and meditation may be more repetitive than music, dance is rarely performed in the absence of music, and meditation tellingly relies on imagining a repeated sound or mantra (Huron 2006: 267). Repetition can be observed in music from all over the world (Nettl 2005). In much music, a simple “strophic” pattern is evident in which a single phrase or passage is repeated over and over. When sung, it is common for successive repetitions to employ different words, as in the case of strophic verses. However, it is also common to hear the same words used with each repetition.