Repetition And Likeness

Mohamed Kamal

CEO and Cofounder of Unbias

Diving deeper into the realm of musical preference, I’d like to share some compelling findings from the academic paper “Repeated Listening Increases the Liking for Music Regardless of Its Complexity” by two Swedish researchers Madison and Schiölde.

Their research methodology is impressive. The authors used 40 tracks, each ranging from simple to complex in terms of style and structure. The complexity of the songs were categorized by a diverse group of experts between the ages of 28-47 years old, and all had extensive musical training, with at least 6-12 years of music education. They were professional musicians – either performers, teachers, composers, or arrangers.

They evaluated the songs on aspects like melodic complexity, rhythmic complexity, and overall complexity. Finally, the songs were then bucketed into four levels of complexity as a way to be rated by the participants of the study.

Listeners who participated in the study came from diverse backgrounds and listening habits, with ages ranging from 28 to 70 (average age being 50.7 years). This group included 10 women and 5 men, all with varied levels of education. The 15 participants listened to each of the 40 tracks once per day for four weeks. That’s 28 rounds of listening to each song! Subsequently, they rated each track based on their liking, perceived complexity, and familiarity spread over the four weeks.

The music covered a range of genres, including pop, rock, jazz, world music, and instrumentals. The tracks had a duration of 38-75 seconds each and comprised various instruments like guitar, bass, percussion, piano, keyboards, saxophone, and violin. Interestingly, they contained no vocals and their tempos varied from slow to fast.

The results are quite intriguing. Liking increased linearly with repetitions for all complexity levels. The more complex examples tended to be favored from the onset and held their popularity even after numerous listens. Surprisingly, when the song sounded similar to music people already enjoyed, they tended to like it more right away. This was more important than how complex the song was or how many times they heard it.

The researchers had people rate how familiar each new song seemed based on music they listened to before. This starting rating of style similarity predicted likability. The musical style and genre of the song mattered more than its complexity. Songs that fit with familiar musical styles were liked more, even if brand new.

This shows musical taste is shaped powerfully by expectations from favored genres. The sound and style you recognize predicts your enjoyment, more than complexity or repetition. Even for new songs, having the familiar musical style you like overrides other factors in appreciation. This highlights how genre familiarity shapes musical preferences and appreciation.

The authors mentioned that previous studies included experiments where participants listened to the same song repeatedly within a single session, such as 5 times in a row. For example, they might hear the same song 5 times in a row within a few minutes. In these experiments, people’s liking for the song often went up at first as they heard it more. But after a few repetitions, usually 3-5 times, their liking started to go down again with more repetitions.

So enjoyment would peak at 3-5 repetitions, and decline from there in the same session. When you graph the liking versus number of repetitions, it makes an inverted U shape. The peak of the upside-down U is the point of maximum liking, at moderate exposure. After that peak, liking decreases with more repetitions in the short session.

This inverted U pattern seen in some studies does not match how people listen to music normally. In real life, people don’t hear songs repeatedly in quick succession in this unnatural way. So the inverted U curve in these experiments may be an artifact of repetitive short-term exposure that is unlike real music listening.

In summary, while there are only 15 participants, the study shares evidence that familiarity fosters liking, irrespective of a piece’s complexity. The authors argue that it’s familiarity alone, not complexity, that explains enjoyment. In a nutshell, the familiarity effect is powerful, and it can be used to turn casual listeners into dedicated fans.

As a conclusion, the key takeaways for us are:

A) Artists exploring the fusion of multiple genres are pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation. While this can sometimes challenge listeners who have a strong preference for specific genres, it also provides an opportunity to broaden their musical horizons. Familiarity plays a significant role in immediate music appreciation, but the study’s findings suggest that with patience and repeated exposure, listeners can grow to appreciate and enjoy even complex and initially unfamiliar music styles.

B) Patience pays off. Repeated exposure over a prolonged period can increase liking, even for less familiar or complex music. This suggests that you should think long-term, cultivating an audience’s appreciation over years rather than months.

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