Repetition. It’s in everything we do, whether we realize it or not. Since birth, we have been conditioned to learn by repeating the words our parents teach us, and by imitating the actions we see. As adults, we continue to play our parts as cogs in the wheel, going through the same actions, over and over – in our daily routines, in our jobs, and in our personal lives.
For many, these motions become mundane. There are people who cannot wait to take time off and escape the boredom of it all, but there are also those who revel in its predictability. After all, it’s something that we can do with our eyes closed; we’ve been doing the same thing for as long as we remember.
According Robert Bruner from the University of Virginia, “The deepest “aha moments” spring from an encounter and then a return. Repeating the encounter fuses it into one’s awareness. Repetition matters because it can hasten and deepen the engagement process.”
This is why you tend to remember things that you’ve seen or heard multiple times (whether consciously or otherwise). The great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, known for his work in children’s development, explained in his book, Mind of Society: “Through repeated experiences, children learn to plan their activities. Such experience proceeds here not in a circle, but in a spiral, passing through the same point at each new revolution while advancing to a higher level.”
Take what you know about your favourite movies and cartoons as an example. Almost everyone is familiar with James Bond’s iconic self-introduction (“Bond. James Bond.”), and even children can easily recite catchphrases uttered by their favourite cartoon characters, like Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, doc?”, Fred Flintstone’s “Yabba dabba doo!” and Bart Simpson’s “Eat my shorts!”
But what is it about repetition that makes it so intriguing? There’s just something so soothing about seeing multiples of the same thing, arranged ever-so-neatly in organised rows. Or that personal satisfaction you get when you just know that someone is going to say or do something, because you’ve come to predict their reactions. It’s rather meditative, really.
Let’s take a look at how the art of repetition makes its way into our lives:
Nature repeats itself in complex ways – fractals are never-ending, self-similar complex patterns that are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Fractals are found almost everywhere, from the delicate petals of a flower, to the microscopic, web-like branches of blood vessels in our bodies, to the geometric shapes of snowflakes. Plants proudly show off their fractal patterns, like pine cones, sunflowers, ferns, or romanesco broccoli.
Credit: Steven Lasry/Unsplash
As a source of creativity, beauty and surprise, fractals are a powerful tool in analysing complex ideas. They can be used in computer file compression systems, in earthquake prediction software and in financial markets to predict the pattern of losses and profits. The term was first coined by the late Polish mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, and has pretty much revolutionised our understanding of the world with the discovery of how huge a role repetition plays in our lives.
... TO ART...
In the world of art, repetition is somewhat of a controversial subject. Some artists claim that it is the death of creativity. But some, like Andy Warhol, found his niche in making repeated prints of the same subject. A bulk of his most notable artworks like Campbell Soup Cans (1962), Marilyn Diptych (1962) and Brillo Boxes (1964) featured the unmistakeable technique of repetition.
Art students study subjects like Principle of Repetition in Design, which come in handy to give an artwork a clear sense of unity, consistency and cohesiveness. When a pattern is formed, the visual excitement is increased. This is one thing that Warhol got right – why look at one single picture, when you can feel a rush of emotions by looking at 100 of the same thing, at the same time? Still not convinced? Take a look at Yayoi Kusama, Damien Hirst and Keith Haring’s work, all of which feature the application of repetition in varying shapes, colours and patterns.
Repetition also plays an incredibly visible role in architecture. Ancient Greek structures dating back as early as 600BC involved identical columns, lined one after another. Not only is the Parthenon a wonderful example of how amazing repetition can be, but its symmetry and proportion has also made it an architectural wonder. Featuring 46 outer and 23 inner columns, each column has 20 flutes (concave shafts) carved into their form.
In Jaipur, India, on the edge of the City Palace, sits the Hawa Mahal. Built in 1799, the five-storey women’s chambers has 953 small, intricately decorated windows overlooking the main street. In the book Building Jaipur: The Making of an Indian City, the authors describe the structure as a pyramid-like fractal pattern which repeats itself across the three bottom stories, framed by a smaller repetitive “crown” comprising the topmost two floors. “The whole composition is worked out on a carefully regulated grid, applying principles that were previously established both textually and in practice, which are tripartite division, subdivision of the wider centre, grouping, repetition and the relation of the whole to the part.”
... TO BRAND IDENTITY...
Brand identity is always about repetition. For instance, everything you see at McDonald’s carries the brand’s unmistakable red, yellow or white elements, designed in specific sequences and shapes that make them recognisable. Since its early days, the iconic “golden arches” logo has been there, working their way into the memories of children and adults alike.
Some of the most well-received designs produced by luxury fashion houses feature their monograms. Originally presented as a way for families to pass on their heritage (akin to a family crest), these repetitive monograms have since become a status symbol. For the initiated, a mere glimpse at a monogram tells them all they need to know about what others are wearing or carrying, and in this respect, the monogram will have achieved its purpose. The monogram of French leather goods maker Goyard features three adjacent chevrons that come together to form the letter Y – the central letter in the Goyard family name. The dot pattern is meant to represent log stacks, paying homage to the family’s former log-driving trade. Following the popularity of Louis Vuitton’s monogram design (created by George Vuitton in 1896 based on his father’s initials), the monogram trend picked up in the 1960s with Gucci, Fendi, Dior and Valentino following suit.
... AND MUSIC
Repetition also finds its way into music, whether in the form of repeating melodies, notes or lyrics. One artist whose strength lies in repetition is Post Malone, whose songs often feature a melody that loops unto itself. Case in point: “Psycho”, “Rock Star”, “Sunflower”, “Circles”... you get the drift.
VICE does a solid explanation of why Posty’s tunes are so catchy. In an interview, Berkeley College of Music professor Kareem Clarke says, “Post Malone’s songwriting style is a bit repetitive. We’ve got a lot of sixteenth note rhythms that’ll maybe repeat for three times and then go into a nice ending phrase. Even if it’s the first time you’re hearing the song, you can anticipate the fact that there’s going to be that down, on-the-one phrase. It makes it easier for the normal listener to latch onto that and remember it and know what’s about to come next.”
Cutting it even shorter is The Killers’ “Mr Brightside”, which almost never strays from its single-note melody. Combined with the lyrics “It was only a kiss”, which is repeated four times, it’s not difficult to see why this song is so well-loved – it’s just so easy to sing along to and remember. So much so that it has since garnered 441 million plays on YouTube, and even found a second lease of life in 2017 (14 years after its release!) as a viral meme.
Taylor Swift’s “Out Of The Woods” is another chart-topper with many repetitive elements: there’s the opening background music, the verses accentuated with an ‘80s inspired beat, which then leads to the chorus where Swift sings “out of the woods” at least 30 times in an almost chant-like way. This isn’t the first Taylor Swift song to feature repetition so prominently either. “Shake It Off”, her first major foray into pop after a career in country music, debuted at #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and went on to stay in the top 100 for 50 weeks.
In short, songs that are more repetitive do better. Marketing expert and University of Southern California professor Joseph Nunes has the results to prove it. In a research article, Nunes compared lyrics from two groups of songs from Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart (1958 – 2012): those that reached #1 and those that never climbed above #90. Greater repetition, both in terms of choruses and words, significantly increased the likelihood that the song would be a #1 hit.
The very foundation of K-pop sits on this knowledge, with carefully constructed songs that are bound to stay fresh in your memory. Even in the wee hours when sleep has become absolutely necessary, it’s easy to remain wide awake with those melodies still stuck on repeat in your brain. Repetition transcends language barriers by incorporating catchy phrases that can be sung by anyone regardless of age, as demonstrated by BTS’ “Boy With Luv” with repeating lyrics like “Oh my my my” and “Oh yeah, oh yeah”.
As author/motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, and the architect of accomplishment.” Though it often gets a bad rep for being less “creative” and too “monotonous”, there’s just no denying the marketability and growing interest in this art of recurrence. Here’s to seeing the beauty of repetition.
Cover Credit: Shubham Dhage/Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.