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26 February 2018

why we love to listen to songs over + over

Come to me when I'm lonely

The weather getting colder today brings romantic visions to me of turtlenecks and hot chocolates, but mostly of Carole King's Way Over Yonder. Last winter I listened to Tapestry incessantly - in parts because it was one of the only records in the house that I recognised, but also because it coincided so bittersweetly with the emotions I was going through, and the feelings I was coming to terms with. 

Otis Redding's Come To Me encapsulates another period of my life - a different time, a different person, a different song that I endlessly repeated. Seemingly, I couldn't listen to anything else. 

They were the only lyrics that resonated; it was the only melody that could make me feel something. The melancholic tones of his voice rocked me and held me in ways nothing or nobody else could.

It's no secret or profound statement to say that music has a golden power over us. It can lift our moods, make us move our bodies - it can even heal trauma with its therapeutic gifts. But what's interesting to me is our propensity to listen to the same song over and over again, back-to-back. How we can find a home inside a medley of notes that can come to feel like a second-skin. 

She blinded me with science

The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things that they are familiar with. Maybe that's why we opt for the same rom-coms upon every hangover, or go for the same curry every Indian takeaway. We're creatures of habit, some of us, and it's nice to know that there's a scientific reason for that. 

There's more to it, though. Professor Elizabeth Margulis explains that "a song allows our mind to engage in "virtual participation," as though we are the ones actually singing the song." Could that, coupled with the happiness of repetitive play, explain why we experience music the way we do? Is that why we can forge such a personal connection with the lyrics written by others, that they can become an intertwined part of us?

I heard there was a secret chord

In a world of Spotify playlists and an over-saturation of content, and the numbing of our attention spans thanks to social media, what a blessing it is to find a song - one song or several - that has the ability to frame a part of our lives. One that has longevity, sentimentality, or a beat that we just can't shake.

"I think there's an extraordinary universal spiritual feeling behind the song," says a guest on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music's episode about Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. The series weaves together songs with the diverse stories that have been inspired by them.

James Talerico was so moved by Jeff Buckley's rendition that he named his daughter after the title. 

"It was a moment that was praise-worthy, it was a moment that was celebratory," he expresses. "And so that song went from the embodiment of my own loneliness to a promise that even in these small moments, that I realised you can step through... When this woman turned to me and reflected back the love I felt for her, it was like that final note soaring out. I felt that our life could be rich, that our life could be beautiful." 

Hallelujah epitomises his lifetime, and though extreme, it's a touching sentiment. 

The mystery of love

When a song imprints upon me, I can't control the urge to listen to it over and over again. It's like eating a home-cooked meal, or having a warm bubble bath - something you can sink into for a few hours and arise renewed. 

It's comforting to feel that connection, or to immerse yourself in the memories that certain songs can provoke. After watching Call Me By Your Name I've been listening to Sufjan Stevens - Mystery of Love on repeat. It reminds me of the beauty of the film, but also of seeing Sufjan in 2010 and the joy I felt as the giant balloons of his set rained down on my friends and I. I remember how content we were then, how trouble-free.

Moreover, it reminds me of my favourite television show the O.C. which featured For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti in a pivotal scene, along with so many others of Stevens' songs. 

I put on this song now, knowing that on this cold night it will instil in me the feeling of pulling on a cosy knit. And then I play it over.

Over and over again.


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