Repetition in music of any genre is vital to its success. That wasn’t always the case. If you go back a few centuries, much music was “through-composed”, a term that refers to music that was one new idea after another, with very little repetition.
Through-composed music has the benefit of establishing a mood, and then keeping that mood.
Take a listen to this recorder piece by early Renaissance composer Pierre Alamire, and you can hear the gentle lulling quality that comes in part from one new idea following another. You can hear that though the various instruments are imitating each other’s melodic ideas, it’s one new idea following another, with almost no real repetition:
If someone asked you to sing any of these melodies, you’d have a hard time doing it. That’s what happens when nothing is repeated: nothing sticks.
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Once we reach the 1700s, and true for music today as well, repetition of melodies, chord progressions, lyrics, etc. becomes an important part of music.
So now listen to this hit from Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down.” You’ll lose count when you try to list how many times you hear something repeat either exactly or approximately. It’s an important part of the structure of good music:
Repetition’s chief benefit is memorability. It causes the music to stick in the listener’s mind. Repetition is why hooks work, why people remember songs, and why they sell.
Are you using repetition to its best effect? Does each melody of your song feature a short idea that gets repeated? In “I Won’t Back Down”, the very first line (“Well I won’t back down”) gets repeated in an approximate way to form the second line (“No I won’t back down”). The third line is new, but then the next two lines are basically repeats of the first line. It’s a great balance between new and repeated ideas.
For songwriters, most of this happens on an instinctive level. You don’t normally have to keep checking your melodies as you write, asking yourself, “Have I repeated enough in this song?”
But it’s important to note the basic concept of repetition, and its importance in good music. It’s more important to think of this question of repetition in a slightly different way: “Have I written a song with too many ideas?”
Most of the time, the verse(V)-chorus(C)-bridge(B) template ensures that we get the right amount of new versus repeated material. That V-C-B form make sure that some melodies and lyrics get heard several times, while others maybe only once.
In fact, one of the benefits of adding a bridge to your songs can be the introduction of a new melody if too much is being repeated.
It’s all a question of balance. Songs with too much repetition wind up having the same effect on your audience as songs without enough repetition: boredom.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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