I’m not a scientist—I routinely google the answers to my daughter’s fourth-grade math questions—but I do a kind of science: I’m a songwriting professor, and until the Renaissance, music was considered a close cousin of math, geometry, and astronomy . It might be hard to imagine today, but looking at the amazing images the James Webb Telescope has been beaming back at us since July—the spiraling “wagon wheel” galaxies, binaries, and echoes of the Big Bang—I can see the connection. In astronomy, elements “dissolve” into understandable pathways or familiar chemicals; in music, they “dissolve” into refrains and melodies that we can sing back.
Consistently repeatable answers might not come as a surprise in fourth-grade math, but when a powerful telescope yields instantly recognizable patterns floating hundreds of millions of light-years away, it’s hard not to ask: How is that possible? And similarly in the realm of music, what causes us to create and respond to a similar type of repetition in our art?
Here’s a wound from my early career as a teacher: After listening to a student’s song in class, I suggested he repeat a sentence. When he simply asked, “Why?” I realized I didn’t have a satisfactory answer other than, “Well, that’s how most songs are written.” Was it just tradition? Trade? Idleness? I didn’t sleep that night. I needed a better answer.
Philosophers and writers have long pondered the nature of repetition and its appeal to the human mind. They have discussed past lives (Plato), time spirals (Gianbattista Vico), eternal return (Friedrich Nietzsche), and the possibility that repetition is not even possible (Heraclitus). Unfortunately, none of the ideas I found were particularly helpful, especially for a songwriting class. I wondered if a universal answer could instead come from within the universe itself.
I wrote my latest book Music, Lyrics and Life: A Guide for the Progressive Songwriter, Just like I write songs – I started with a question, followed it and kept going. Many of the experts I interviewed weren’t songwriters but were still grappling with similar questions in their own fields and ways: This was definitely the case with cosmologist Janna Levin, a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow who currently holds the Claire Tow Professorship in Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College. Levin’s 2016 book, Black Hole Blues and other songs from outer space, tells the story of the Nobel Prize-winning team that helped build the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which detects gravitational waves created by black holes as they “slosh through spacetime…like waves on an ocean.” “. (By the way, you can hear gravitational waves yourself right now.)
What I got from Levin was more than an explanation of musical repetition. It was a new interpretation of reality itself.
Songwriters and astrophysicists have an affinity for repetition. It is often used as a tool in music, but for astronomers there seems to be an assumption that repetition implies forces at work intentionally, perhaps even intelligently.
Absolutely. One of the things that SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – does is they look for very regular mathematical signals because they assume that nature doesn’t provide that – nature is chaotic, and so nature can’t do anything do so regularly. So when you find an incredibly regular signal, hope it was sent by someone in control of their environment, who made it work that way.
But sometimes we get it wrong. Have you heard of pulsars? There are big stars that collapse and die, and they don’t form black holes – they’re not big enough – so they form a neutron star. And the neutron star spins and has a huge magnetic field and basically becomes a lighthouse. It literally has a beam of light, and as it spins, that beam sweeps past you, Not irregular – radio astronomers spotted one, and it was clock is on, Man. Clock is on! I don’t remember if it was a millisecond or some second type of time scale. But it was like boom, boom, boomso regularly that [astronomers] they jokingly called LGMs, meaning “little green men.” And then, over time, they realized that this is a natural source. [A pulsar] is just a perfect watch. It doesn’t slow down over billions of years. And it will not waver. And it can happen that nature creates something so perfect.
What does it say about people that we are so fascinated by repeated information?
I firmly believe that we inherit mathematical structures because mathematics made us. Evolution is guided by forces of nature—that’s how we evolve—and these forces, not surprisingly, leave an imprint on the fabric of our minds. Of course they must be mathematical. And in a larger, genetic sense, who our family was, who our parents were – our parents were the laws of physics. And in our heads it is encrypted there. And we discover the structure of our mind. So I can sit there with a piece of paper and discover algebra and discover geometry, discover topology, discover different branches of mathematics, because that’s how it is in my thoughts.
There are also communications within the animal kingdom, like bird calls, that are repeated. And repetition corrects mistakes. So, you know, if you didn’t get it the first time, you’ll get it next time…
We want to be unique in the language, but we also want to be repetitive enough that you recognize the words. I want to say these words to you over and over again, like children – and then they become verbal. You need the repetition first to understand what the words mean, but then I want to be able to say something unique by putting those words together in a specific way.
That’s basic songwriting theory – choruses that repeat themselves and teach the listener themselves. . .
Right. LIGO has a really hard time recognizing something that just bursts once. It must to repeat so it can pull out. One of the things we really hope from LIGO in the future is that it listens to something long enough to be able to hear repeats. That is exactly what it wants to look for. And these repetitions will allow him to identify something. You know, it’s like someone yells in the street and you’re like, “Did I just hear that?” And then, as it happens over and over again, you’re like, “Oh! Something went wrong!”
That’s what I’m talking about!
That’s what science is all about—reproducibility, experimentation, the fact that someone else can do it and get the same answer. I spoke to someone from Oxford who said: ‘Look, this is a real experiment: imagine a circle in your mind, divide it by the diameter. You just derived the formula for pi. This is an experiment. And anyone can run the same experiment in their head and get the exact same answer.”
I think that’s as tangible as anything else. It might not mean that physically, externally, I took out a tape measure, does it? But it’s as real to me as if I had done it, and in a sense it is more real because my tape measure is imperfect but in my eyes it is perfect. how is this not real That is real.
So, repetition, whether from the same source or the same calculation, makes something real.
I think a lot of abstractionists like me struggle with “reality” because it is fewer real. “What do you mean the chair was blue? I think it is persimmon-colored.” “I think it is lavender.” For example, there is less reality in reality than in our heads. So it’s pretty comforting to know that if you’re from Bangladesh 200 years ago and did the same thought experiment with pi, it’s 3.14159 and so on. There is a very deep sense of connection. So I think if you look at repetition as an evolutionary trait, then it makes sense that we have it.
And the reproducibility of something like Pi connects us to each other and maybe everyone out there.
No mistakes, no guru, no mistakes – just the pure terrain of thought. There is no experiment in human history that will summon Pi. There will be a summon approximation to pi, but never pi itself. The only place pi exists is in my head and yours. And if we both get it right, we’ll be amazed that no matter where in the universe we are, we get the same digits. how is this not real