I like it in music and I like it in writing. Handled properly it can be very powerful; handled badly it can be a real irritant, of course. You have to be careful.
In music the repetition of a beat can have a powerful, visceral effect. In electronic dance music, a genre that I listen to a lot on my early morning strolls, the repetition can often be the essence of the piece, building and building until you feel that it will never stop and then suddenly a tune bursts out and, let’s face it, you feel like dancing.
In the world of classical music I like minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich who repeat phrases and bundles of notes with very little alteration for what seems like forever, and which can sound boring but which make me feel profoundly and wrenchingly emotional.
As somebody once said when I played him a bit of Philip Glass: ‘‘I’m sure I’ve heard that all before even though I haven’t heard it before because it doesn’t half go on and on.’’ Well, yes; or on and on and on and on.
Sometimes in pop music a line or a few lines of words will be repeated over and again; think of a song like Get Lucky by Daft Punk that was all over the airwaves a few years ago.
Written down, the repetitive lyrics are brittle and banal (like brittle bananas? Maybe.) and they have no real emotional or cultural weight at all: ‘‘We’re up all night to get lucky’’ repeated so many times that it feels like the band have been given a hundred lines by a teacher who is fed up of them singing at the back of the class.
But when the words are lifted like that off the page the repetition of the lyrics with the music gives them a kind of magisterial and epic quality. That’s my personal view, I realise, and I know that a number of people would say, like my dad would have, that it’s just a noise.
Mind you, if something affects the listener that negatively then at least it’s having some effect.
Repetition in poetry or prose can do mysterious things too; a poem that really haunts me is one by the American poet Ron Padgett which just consists of the line ‘‘Nothing in that drawer’’ 17 times.
On one level it’s silly but on another level I reckon it’s quite a profound piece of writing because it’s about searching for something and not finding it, about being on a constant quest throughout your life for a kind of happiness and never finding it because (all together now, with feeling) there’s nothing in that drawer.
I remember nothing else from a horror story in an anthology of scary tales edited by Alfred Hitchcock except the line ‘‘He carried on sorting out the nut hulls’’.
Even now and even though it’s cold in the room I’m writing this in, I still get a shiver that isn’t the cold. I still get a shiver that isn’t the cold. I still get a shiver that isn’t the cold.