For instance:

1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 0

You probably noticed immediately that the number four is missing. Learning and habituation cause us to expect it to be there, but it is not. Repetition is like a chain, whose links you notice only when one breaks, severing the connections. Madison Avenue pundits turn this psychology into utility with so called “catch-phrases” that play upon our innate vulnerability to formula. A current advertising slogan, endlessly repeated on radio and TV, goes “Did somebody say . . . ?” It is expected that in the milli-second lull, the individual consumer will fill in the gap with . . .“McDonalds?”

Another of the myriad ways that the power of repetition can subtly assert itself is in the automatic recall of the sequence of tracks on a musical recording. I’m particularly prone to this syndrome. During Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, his effective use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” from their album Rumours, led me to be constantly singing the following track,“Go Your Own Way,” while I worked. Then I’d absent-mindedly continue with “Songbird.”


Yes, I’m one of those people who, in lighter moods, habitually sings to himself. I will often sing/hum/mumble an entire record album, from first track to last, in sequence.

Patterns are constant. Their arrangement is continuous. If they deviate from their serial form they cease to exist as patterns. If the burger chain suddenly changed their script to “Who spoke the name . . . ?” for instance, “McDonalds” would not readily spring to mind until it was etched into your memory, supplanting the previous slogan. In this same fashion, I must sing/hum the closing notes of a given tune in the correct musical key, with the pitch, notes, tone, and timing just as I’d heard them on the original recording. Any variation means the sequential follow-through will not occur automatically. If I miss a note or go flat, I would have to rely upon my “manual” memory to search out the subsequent tune. But with the automatic linkage broken there’s no reason to continue, so I’ll usually switch to another album and try to stay in tune. Or, as my friends prefer, just shut up altogether.