Repetition Can Work if You Change Something Each Time

Without repetition, a song would be too difficult for the average listener to remember once it’s done.


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Bon Iver - CalgaryIt can really surprise you how little raw material there is in most songs. The vast majority of good songs are put together with a verse melody and a chorus melody, with the possibility of a bridge melody thrown in. And then when you put the magnifying glass on each of those song sections, you become aware that individual melodies are themselves made up of short ideas that are repeated numerous times. Repetition is a vital part of the success of songs. Without it, music would sound like a run-on sentence, far too difficult for the average listener to remember.

And if no one is remembering your songs, no one is humming them, and certainly precious few are going to feel compelled to return to your song and listen again.

But the fear is that too much repetition may bore the listener. But that fear is actually overstated. If you change something – anything – as you repeat, audiences enjoy the repetition. People actually like hearing things repeat. It makes them feel that they understand the music. And as I said, repetition makes it more likely that you’ll build an audience base.

A great example for the power of repetition in music is Bon Iver’s “Calgary”. The opening melody is repeated numerous times, with subtle changes in instrumentation each time:

  • Melody A, 1st presentation (0’08”): Mid-range synth accompaniment.
  • Melody A, 2nd presentation (0’40”): Add simple background vocals
  • Melody A, 3rd presentation (1’16”):  Add percussion and extra synth
  • Melody A, 4th presentation (1’52”): Add more percussion
  • Melody B (2’34”): Brighter vocals
  • Melody A (3’24”): unaccompanied vocal, simple guitar

I call these melodies A and B, because it seems irrelevant to call them verse and chorus. For each time that Melody A is repeated, something changes – something that builds song energy. Melody B, which acts as a type of bridge, represents the climactic section of the song. Vocals are EQ’d to present higher overtones, an edgier sound.

Within each of the two major melodies in this song, repetition plays a key role. Melody B in particular is simply a short 7-note idea that is repeated several times.

This concept of repetition as a crucial element of good music is very clearly obvious with Bon Iver’s music, but has been a key ingredient of successful songs for years. The lesson here is that many songwriters struggle with creating ideas for songs, when most music is comprised of repeated melodies that are themselves constructed of repeating motifs.

As a songwriting challenge, try the following:

  1. Write a short 4- to 8-note melody that is accompanied by a simple 2-chord progression.
  2. Sing it 3 times using the same progression.
  3. For a 4th phrase, create a new melody that sits lower in pitch, with a 2-chord progression that brings it to a close (i.e., end it on a I-chord or a vi-chord).

That simple exercise can result in a section that can, itself, be repeated several times. This is the template that “Calgary” uses, and it works very well.

It may not be your normal way of writing, but that kind of repetition exercise can serve to remind you that in music, simplicity almost always wins out over complexity.


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

  1. Hello, my name is Cora G. and I am a student at the University of Texas at Dallas. I am currently taking Freshman Rhetoric and chose this great blog as the subject for my Blog Analysis assignment, thus I am leaving this comment as part of my assignment…

    I really enjoy Ewer’s blog. He has committed himself to help a struggling musician find his voice, his melody, his personal style. While he goes into fine detail, often narrowing his examples to the exact seconds, he speaks to the reader with respect, as if they have some knowledge of what he is writing about. His musical examples are key in accomplishing this respect.
    While providing many examples of popular music, he highlights many less popular songs, such as music not found in the nation’s top forty hits. I appreciated that he used less popular music as well, not only because it shows he listens to a wide variety of music, but it builds a connection with readers like me, who do not keep up with top forty hits.
    One of his examples is highlighted in the article, “Repetition Can Work if You Change Something Each Time,” he goes on to explain why we do not feel compelled to listen to certain songs because they lack the repetition that helps us remember it. However, too much repetition can bore us. I completely agree with the Ewer. There are many songs I can think of, that I am not fond of, simply because the verse is repetitive, as if the writer could not think of anything else to say. Nonetheless, one can assume that Ewer respects artists, because everyone is different.

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