69650025-1Photographs by Phoebe Arnstein

But why, once the trigger is tripped, such compulsion? Why the drive to keep that track switched ‘on’ when all that will happen, surely, is that we will destroy what we love: kill it through repetition, ruin its original potency, and numb ourselves to its impact?

Whichever base emotion the song awakens (fear, rage, love, joy, sadness) demands to be rehearsed over and over again until its sting is forgotten, until its wildness is tamed. The song acts like a flame—fanning a feeling, a feeling that must be mastered or contained. At first ‘play,’ there is a piercing emotional éclat, but by the time the song is on the turntable for the twentieth play, it is fading, dying with a whimper. Only the passing of time and living in abstinence from it, can restore its lost power (but never, ever entirely.)

So, we are doomed to play the song over and over again in order to consume it, to try to internalise it as we would an evening meal, and make it part of ourselves. However, all that this repetition brings is a growing lack of feeling for what we once enjoyed, as we squeeze the song more and more, wringing it dry and causing the spark of creative energy that attracted us in the first place to fade. Overplaying can turn a good song into a bad song, can exhaust the piece of music so that we are physically unable to stand it any more.

But beyond the personal inclination to assassinate a good tune, it can also be mass-murdered—overplayed at nightclubs, in boutiques and bars, on radios (not to mention those bloody adverts,) the unwitting song undergoes a type of public execution. It is tortured, disfigured beyond recognition through its repetition in the harsh hands of mass media. Akin to slavery, the song becomes like a man trapped inside a machine, condemned to repeat itself over and over again, always the same, never different, with each play causing further loss of that elusive scent of original authenticity. This is why the live performance is so special; ‘live-ness’ reactivates the music, pulling it out of its fossilised status, and breathing life back into it.

In a way, the music dies the moment it becomes ‘produced,’ pressed into a record and squeezed into an mp3 file. The strange thing is that we need to repeat this death over and over again. Its fixed state is comforting in its familiarity, but the other side of the repetition process is the empty hope that one day the song will change, will reveal something different, and cause another effect in a new context.

A song can be a powerful memory index, perhaps one of the most powerful. A used up, consumed old tune, left untouched to ferment over a period of time, when heard again can create an emphatic shock of recognition. Almost as if a wound has been reopened: out pour the old memories, the old associations, the old traumas, almost as fresh as they once were, but now slightly different, all having been tinged by nostalgia’s unforgiving brush. And again these old emotions need to be tamed; the song must be repeated, and so the cycle continues.

Itunes is particularly interesting in the way in which it dates the time a track was added to a library, so that when an old song randomly comes on, and old, difficult-to-identify feelings of déjà-vu resurface, we can now identify exactly when it was downloaded. It is almost painfully exact, I would argue, with not just the date but the literal hour and minute of its original inclusion. Its strength as an index is that it can lead you to forgotten events and memories, reversing the typical processes of amnesia. Such is the mnemonic potency of music.

These two strands – the repetitive consumption of a track until the life has been sucked from it, and the song as a powerful memory index with its aura regained through the energies of time – are two sides of the same coin. For the song is initially transformed through this repetition process: with each play, it is etched further and further into our minds, its imprint left like a scar, with memory traces capable of revisiting us, at any point in the future.  The novel, in comparison, is read over a length of time, and therefore remains with us as a constant companion for a short period of our life, not just for a moment. Therefore when you remember a novel, you may remember the time and place when you were reading it, and the feelings you had at that particular moment in your life. In the repetitive consumption of the same song over a period time it is as if we are trying to stretch the piece of music out, to make the song into a novel, spreading and interweaving it with the happenings of life. What makes the song even more powerful than the novel as a memory index is its short, fixed state; the fact that it never changes, but every new moment that it occupies in our hearing represents change and so it accompanies important life phases, events, transitions, and seeps into our unconscious as embedded as the event itself. It can remain, stowed away like an old photograph, not forgotten but dismissed, avoided for years, yet always at the ready to explode with all that it represents.


The repetitive pattern of music consumption is a numbing, deadening process. This cannot be denied. It is also, however, something that is acted out for the future, something that is essential for memory formation. We perform the process in the hope that the music might be internalised, might become part of us, part of our lives, and, in spite of us, it does.