This is a picture of a song. Its fingerprint. Its visual identity. It was generated by a tool that visualizes
matching data. And it reveals something really cool about
how a song can be structured around lyrical repetition. By the way, this is Vince Staples “Yeah
Right”, and it’s been stuck in my head for months. Boy yeah right yeah right yeah right. Boy yeah right yeah right yeah right. This is Colin Morris. He’s a computer programmer that who loves
pop music. I did a master’s degree in computational linguistics. Colin created this tool called Song Sim. Each row
and each column is a word in a song from beginning to end. But the interesting thing is when you see these structures off the diagonal. Those moments off the diagonal represent some
form of repetition. I think my favorite example and one of the
earliest ones that I played with was Bad Romance by Lady Gaga. one of the coolest things about this song
is just how many different hooks she manages to squeeze into it. Ra ra ah ah ah roma roma ma gaga oh la la
want your bad romance. Depending on how you count, there are at least
five different lyrical themes that repeat to the point where you start running out of
words to describe them. Usually verses aren’t that repetitive. Here, they are. The only part of the song that is falls into
a traditional song structure is the bridge. And it really stands out. Still, though, it’s highly repetitive. Walk walk fashion baby work move that bitch
crazy. Bad Romance came out in 2009 and since then
some of biggest pop songs every year have only gotten more repetitive. We’ll get back to this chart but first,
I want to get something out of the way. I really really really really really really
like you and I want you do you want me to? Yes that’s true. But not exactly what I want to say. You see, there’s always been a pretty strong
sentiment that if a song is structured around excessive repetition it’s uncreative, it’s
unchallenging or it lacks complexity. That anti repetition sentiment goes back a
laughably long time. All the way back to November 6, 1882 when
composer Ferdinand Praeger gave a case against repetition called “On the fallacy of the
repetition of parts in the classical form.” Here’s what he said: All will readily admit that a first impression,
however striking, is weakened when followed by an immediate repetition. Would ever a poet think of repeating half
of his poem; a dramatist a whole act; a novelist a whole
chapter ? Such a proposition would be at once rejected as childish. Why should it be otherwise with music? Praeger believed repetition was beneath music
when in fact, repetition is decidedly musical. There’s this phenomenon called the speech
to song illusion. Have you run across that? That’s Elizabeth Margulis. She directs the Music Cognition Lab at the
University of Arkansas and has written a book on musical repetition. There’s this really interesting process
where you can take a little bit of speech, you can take a little bit of speech, you can
take a little bit of speech. Repeat it a number of times and for many people
what initially just sounded like somebody talking to you now sounds like somebody singing. Psychologist Diana Deutsch discovered this
illusion in 1995 ironically when she was editing the audio of her CD ‘Musical Illusions and
Paradoxes’. Margulis’ music cognition lab has conducted
a number of studies on repetition but there’s one that is really is pretty fascinating. She selected music from renowned 20th century
composer, Elliot Carter whose work was is atonal and explicitly non-repetitive. She presented a few versions to a class of
33 students who were unfamiliar with the work. One version was the original, no alterations. The other two versions were digitally altered
just to be repetitive without regard for the aesthetic quality of the music. And it turned out that the excerpts that had
been kind of adulterated to insert this literal kind of repetition were viewed not only as
more enjoyable and more interesting but also was more likely to have been composed by human
artists rather than randomly generated by computer. So repetition in music not only feels intentional
to our brains we actually enjoy it. Let’s take a look at that chart you saw
earlier. It illustrates that our love of repetition
was increasingly reflected in pop music. I was surprised by how clear the trend was. Oh yeah, Colin made that too. It turned out that you could basically take
any 10 year period over the last 50 years and there would always be an increase in repetition
over those 10 years. Yes, pop songs have gotten more repetitive,
But repetition can be used to flip predictable song structures to make them completely unpredictable. And that’s really cool. I don’t know if you saw the visualization
for “Formation” by Beyonce? Oh yes. Okay ladies now let’s get in formation It’s almost like two songs glued together. With the first half of the song you have this
very clear chorus. My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana
You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama Once you get to the second half – that hook
disappears and Beyonce replaces it with this catchy hyper repetitive chant. Cause I slay (okay)
I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay), I slay (okay),
I slay (okay) You can’t deny the power of this song. Repetition doesn’t just make it memorable,
it reinforces its central message. But when I listen to “Yeah Right” by Vince
Staples I’m reminded of the speech to song illusion. When Vince repeats Yeah Right over twenty
times,I start to shift my focus from the meaning of the lyric to the rhythm and musicality
of it. Boy yeah right yeah right yeah right. Boy yeah right. Repetition grabs a hold of our brains in a
way that we often can’t quite control. And that might feel like the music is playing
us rather than us playing the music. But if repetition makes songs like Formation,
Lose yourself to Dance, Beat It and I wanna dance with Somebody both great and memorable. It can rule the charts forever.