Pattern Recognition and Musical Repetition: Getting the Balance Right

Repetition is a crucial aspect of great songs. Here’s a bit on how to get it to work for you in your songwriting.

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Studio mixerOne of the strengths we possess as members of the human species is our ability — our desire, actually — to recognize patterns. We use that ability to a great extent as composers of music.

You might say that the success of music comes down to the effectiveness of patterns that we layer together. We create patterns, both large-scale and small, every time we write a song. Some of those patterns pertain to the form of the song. For example, moving from verse to chorus, back again, then on to a bridge before returning to the chorus… these are all aspects of patterns that listeners rely on to understand the 4-minutes of music you’re presenting.

Other patterns which listeners experience without giving much thought include: the basic drum beat, repeating words or phrases in the lyrics, repeating melodic shapes, and so on.

It could be said that the one pattern that audiences value the most is the hook. A hook is a short, catchy fragment of music that usually combines melody, harmony and rhythm in a tantalizing way. In a sense, it can be described as a pattern comprised of musical elements, done in such a way that listeners like to hear it over and over again.

When we talk about musical patterns we are really talking about musical repetition. You can’t have a pattern without something repeating. At the same time, too much repetition is often considered a negative quality in songwriting.

So it’s important to get the balance right. And what’s most interesting is that a song with too much repetition has the same effect on the listener as a song with not enough repetition: boredom.

So here are some thoughts to consider when dealing with repetition in songwriting:

  1. Songs do not need much “new material.” Songs with “too many ideas” are confusing to listeners. Every time they hear something new, they try to relate it to something they’ve already heard. A verse idea, a chorus idea, and perhaps a bridge… that makes three basic melodic ideas for a song, and that usually provides the best balance of repetition.
  2. Song melodies should use a good amount of repetition. Sometimes, repetition is exact (a bar or two of music is repeated note-for-note), and sometimes the repetition is approximate (where the general shape of the melody is repeated with the same rhythm. That approximate repetition is called a motif, and that kind of repetition is crucial to gluing a song together.
  3. Consider repetition as an integral part of your instrumental performances. For example, developing a repetitious pattern in your bass line can add a lot to the overall success of your song, and a great example is McCartney’s bass line in “Dear Prudence.” Also in the same song, the gently oscillating guitar pattern acts as an important motif throughout the entire song.
  4. Change chords to make repetition in melodies less obvious. It’s possible to take a melodic idea and repeat it over and over while changing the chords underneath. The benefit is most valuable when a melodic shape comes up often in a song. The different chords underneath make the sense of exact repetition much less noticeable. This is easiest done when the melody is pentatonic (using notes 1,2,3,5 and 6 from a major scale).
  5. Be careful with songwriting formulas: a dangerous kind of repetition. A formula in songwriting typically means that whatever you did in one song to create something successful gets repeated in the next song, dressed up slightly differently. But you can’t fool listeners. Once they hear you resorting to repeating ideas from one song to the next, they question your sense of originality. The best way to avoid this problem is to listen to lots of music from many different genres.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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  1. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – June 5, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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