The puzzle of musical repetition
Jenny Judge (New York University, University of Melbourne)

October 12, 2023, 4:15pm - 6:15pm
Philosophy, University of Melbourne

Arts West 556
University of Melbourne


Take any piece of music, from any genre you like: pop, classical, jazz, bluegrass, shoegaze, grunge, death metal. Doesn’t matter which. Odds are, that piece will be saturated with repetition at every level, from the micro to the macro. Melodies are often stated only to be immediately repeated. Rhythmic motifs and chord progressions loop round and round. In pop, verses and choruses repeat; in classical music, the statement of a theme usually comes back multiple times, often pretty much verbatim. And then, when we’re finished listening to one of these hyper-repetitive things, we turn around and listen to the whole thing again, and again, and again.   Musical repetition is the most familiar and ordinary thing in the world — but it’s also deeply puzzling. After all, this level of repetition would be intolerable in language. (Imagine a story in which every word, turn of phrase and constituent episode was apt to be repeated multiple times.) So, how is it that it seems so natural in music? If repetition would make for linguistic nonsense, how is it that it makes for musical sense? This is the puzzle of musical repetition.   In this talk, I’ll suggest an answer to the puzzle. I’ll begin by examining music’s connection to human feeling, arguing that music expresses feeling in the sense of representing it. But music is a distinctive kind of representation of feeling: it is what the mid-century American philosopher Susanne Langer calls a presentational symbol of feeling. A question arises: How do sounds come to represent feelings in this way in the first place? And this, I’ll suggest, is where repetition comes in. I’ll argue that repetition is a key means by which sounds are transformed into the vehicle of a presentational symbol of feeling. In other words, repetition is a condition of musical expression: it plays a central role in the story of how musical sounds come to have the expressive content that they have. Thus, if feeling is the ‘sense’ of music — its content, in other words — repetition makes for musical sense in quite a literal way.

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