A former housemate of mine recently interviewed me for a blog post she was writing on the science of sound for her undergraduate Physics class. One of her questions was “How does your understanding of sound correlate with your job as a Music Designer?”

While thinking of an answer, an interview with music cognition professor Elizabeth Margulis that I’d recently read on National Public Radio’s Health News blog came to mind.

She discusses the effects of exposure to repetition that have been theorized by psychologist Robert Zajonc as the “mere exposure affect,” based on four experiments he conducted in 1968. The outcome of repeated exposure tends to be a warm feeling toward what we encounter over and over again. Margulis tested this theory by creating loops out of a piece by twentieth-century composer Luciano Berio, who specialized in experimental music that actively avoided repetition. She found that listeners enjoyed her repetition-heavy excerpt of the piece more than the straight excerpt, believing it to sound more interesting and “human.”

Margulis observes that repetition as a defining feature of music appears to be a cultural universal, and that, furthermore, it seems to wear down listeners’ resistance to the new and forge a positive association with it. This idea made me think of the prevalence of music in rituals, which function to mediate a person or group to the unknown in some form or fashion (such as the “afterlife” or a new phase of life). Regarding how this occurs, she posits that hearing repetition in music and speech undoes the meanings that members of a social group take for granted and opens up the possibility for new meanings to arise. As she puts it, “…part of what the repetition in music allows us to do is leave ourselves. In some small way, it allows us to shift and adjust our reality.” She provides the example of repeating a word over the course of a minute and the experience of it starting to sound nonsensical, leaving the realm of its established meaning.

Margulis’s work helps to explain why music is such a crucial component to Experience Design. Programming playlists of music for commercial spaces requires grouping songs based on style, energy level, tempo, mood, and instrumentation (for example) so that the playback reflects the values and ethos of the brand being represented. The playlist plays back as a different sequence of songs each day, but these songs share specific attributes. In this way, Music Designers use both the repetition inherent in most music and the repetition of sonic features to powerfully create for customers a memorable and pleasing connection with products and services for sale that they initially approach with a natural suspicion.

– Submitted by Amy Frishkey, Music Design