Repetition, and the Structure of Good Melodies

There are lots of ways to write melodies, but most of those ways use repetition as a key ingredient.

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Deathcab for Cutie: You are a TouristNo matter what genre you write in, repetition is a key ingredient in the success of most songs. It’s one of the things songwriters struggle to get into a proper balance. Too much repetition can bore an audience, but not enough has the exact same effect on a listener: boredom. Without things repeating, it’s information overload, as the listener feels as though they’re on a seemingly never-ending journey of new melodies. Repetition of melodic fragments puts the audience at ease. And there are several ways this can be done.

We often think that choruses exhibit more repetition than verses, but that’s probably just an illusion. The thing about chorus melodies is that they tend to be a bit simpler in their basic construction. After all, most choruses, especially in pop music, will use an easily-singable hook, and that usually makes repetition more noticeable.

Hooks and RiffsIf getting a hook to work is causing you problems, this is the eBook you need: “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.”

It’s important to note that there are many different ways to use repetition, some of which are more common than others. Check out the following list of songs (phrases that are almost identical are considered to be the same):

AAAB. A basic melodic fragment is repeated three times, with variation happening on the fourth iteration. Example: Chorus of “Paradise” (Cold Play), as well as the chorus of “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele).

ABAB. A melodic phrase is sung, followed immediately by a new melodic fragment. The two phrases are then repeated. Example: Verse of “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele), as well as the chorus of  “We Found Love” (Rihanna).

AABA. A short melody is repeated. A new fragment is created for the third phrase, followed by a repeat of the first phrase. Example: “You Are a Tourist” (Death Cab for Cutie). Listen starting with the first sung portion (“When there’s a burning in your heart..”).

AABC. A short melody is repeated, followed by two new melodic phrases. Example: The verse of  “Eyes Wide Open” (Gotye), as well as the verse of “Ours” (Taylor Swift)

As you listen to the examples above, you’ll notice that often a “B” fragment, though different from “A”, will still show similarities to the A section. So even phrases that aren’t specifically repeated are strongly linked to other melodic material in the song.

This is a relatively easy technique to practice. The following steps will help you create a 4-phrase AABA melody. Just modify the steps to create other formal schemes:

  1. Create a short melodic phrase that has a distinct shape, and can be accompanied by the tonic chord and perhaps one other (such as I-IV, or I-V, or I-vi, for example). This will serves as phrases 1 and 2.
  2. For phrase 3, play a IV-chord, and create a new phrase that’s different, but still has a similar shape. You can usually achieve this by being sure to start on a higher note than phrase 1.
  3. For the final phrase, repeat phrase 1.

Other schemes, such as ABCD, are very possible. You can make non-repeating forms work better and sound stronger by making sure that each melodic phrase has a similar shape.

The bottom line here is that in all genres of music, repetition is a crucial element. Without repetition anywhere, listeners get frustrated as they feel that the music is taking them on a journey that never ends. As a useful exercise, choose five of your favourite songs, and sketch out the melodic phrase design.

Then turn to your own songs, and do the same thing. You should be noticing repeating phrasing throughout your music. That kind of repetition strengthens the structure of your melodies.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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