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Why We Love Repetitive Electronic Music

‘The dance can reveal everything mysterious that is hidden in music, and it has the additional merit of being human and palpable. Dancing is poetry with arms and legs.’ — Charles Baudelaire

Electronic dance music has always been a playground for old patterns in new guises: repetitive rhythms with various shifting musical layers. Yet, the various expressions of repetitive rhythmic patterning are not new developments confined to music technology. African tribal music, South American shamanic music, loop-based analogue tech music all share the same etiology: familiar rhythmic geometry, layered with intoxicating sonic expressions. And blending these patterns with cutting edge music technology is the paradigm that keeps genres like techno at the forefront of electronic music culture. But what is it about the human condition that gives this simple combination its hedonistic appeal?

“As the old causality dilemma asks: Which came first, the music or the drugs?”

The obvious answer — and the first fallacy — is drugs. As the old causality dilemma asks: Which came first, the music or the drugs? Or was it about poultry? Either way, experiments with intoxicants in the rave scene (and any music scene for that matter) have been known for a long time, from psy-trance and acid-jazz, to breaks and drum and bass — all host to a plethora of aptly named artists like Infected Mushroom, M.A.N.D.Y, Cut Chemist and Chemical Brothers to name a few. Is there an eponymous theme going on here? Undoubtedly… but academics are now discovering that our enjoyment of repetitive music is a lot more than merely chemical-induced shenanigans.

‘Undoubtedly, the most primitive musical percept is that of pulse, recognized perhaps first in our own rhythmic pulse, heart beat”

Scholarly research linking sound design with emotional appeal is still nascent and answers are not immediately forthcoming. However, a few researchers have started to tie together some interesting links between evolution and repetitive sound patterning. As Philip Ball states in his book The Music Instinct, ‘we know of societies without writing, and even without visual art — but none, it seems, lack some form of music’.[i] And the most ubiquitous form of music? The kind driven by a consistent, steady pulse, a.k.a the 4x4 beat known to many cultures all over the world. From the clubs of Berlin to Bwiti music in West Africa, whether layered with polyrhythms or synthesized melody, the fundamental features remain the same. In his essay Patterns in Musical Composition, Transformation, Mathematical Groups and the Nature of Mathematical Substance, Bill Hammel expands on the links between steady rhythm and biology: ‘Undoubtedly, the most primitive musical percept is that of pulse, recognized perhaps first in our own rhythmic pulse, heart beat. Imagine an Australopithicus, on his day off, picking some object up and banging it against another; the satisfaction obtained by simply ‘beating out time’, in a steady repeating unit of time.’[ii]

Whether it’s ‘beating out time’, or something more abstract like learning new words or recognizing a loved one’s face in the clouds, we are all hardwired to see organization within seemingly random situations. And it’s this ability to see and impose patterns within the natural world that is possibly one of the great fundamentals of human musical empowerment.

Mathematics is primarily concerned with quantity, and therefore all the parameters of mathematics are readily quantifiable — the same is true of music. Even though we may not understand the theoretical aspects of what we listen to, our brain is organizing the sounds into a pleasing structure. So when we nod our head in rhythm to Justin Beiber’s odious bile, we are using very similar mental processes to spotting someone we recognize in a crowd.

Unfortunately, herein lies another caveat. We may have figured out why we understand and recognize music, but the manipulative power of music over our emotions is left unchecked. As the great 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, ‘Without music, life would be a mistake’.[iii] No matter where you are or your cultural background, music will always hold a transcendent emotional power regardless of prior intellectual training or knowledge. Considering only 4% of the population has amusia — otherwise known as tone deafness — 96% subconsciously ‘make sense’ of music. Though still to this day, attempts to understand why a simple line of melody can augment or depress one’s mood haven’t been particularly fruitful.

“When music is designed for immediate effect (dancing) ‘more primal and automatic neural processes take over, […] bypassing the intellect to create a pure and optimal experience’”

Dr. Stefan M. Oertl has been researching the emotional fluctuations that occur when listening to steady kick drums and simple bass loops. The repetition of these simple patterns creates what Oertl dubs a ‘functional trance state’ (not in reference to the music genre). He states ‘this type of trance, directly induced and disrupted by compositional structure and sonic design [is] a “functional trance” because music serves as a rather precise control element for the quality of such an induced altered state.’[iv] The simplicity of the pattern allows the listener to respond in a ‘neurally (“hardwired”) subconscious way’ instead of using more analytical thought processes. When music is designed for immediate effect (dancing) ‘more primal and automatic neural processes take over, […] bypassing the intellect to create a pure and optimal experience’. This isn’t to denigrate electronic music as simple and animalistic, it is to highlight that the mind and body process the sound differently. It also illustrates why the slight changes have the biggest impact in dance music; it brings us out of the ‘functional trance’ briefly allowing analytical appreciation, before quickly putting us straight back into the trance. So when, as is common in genres like progressive techno, one hears polyrhythms churning and disrupting a straight four beat, the listener is dealing with a blend of trance-inducing elements as well as some analytical processing — the familiar and the unfamiliar, the mind and the body, flow and disruption. We enjoy successfully predicting the next four bars of a song, but we also occasionally enjoy when those predictions are wrong and the music catches us off-guard.

Hidden amongst these hypotheses is a strong argument as to why the marriage between substances and music has existed for so long. Psychotropic drugs work on a similar level; they tend to make the ordinary extraordinary. We use them to add a new layer to what is already familiar; we trick our sensory perception; we warp our surroundings; we heighten what would otherwise be ‘normality’. Scholarly research is proving that music is a drug like any other, stimulating our reward-response mechanisms, altering our chemical balances, playing with our perception of the present. There are no easy scientific answers to explaining the beauty of music, but there are ways we can appreciate it more fully.

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