This post contains some additional thoughts on my previous post about motifs. As you know, a motif is a repeating figure (melodic, rhythmic, or any other musical fragment) that adds strength to the structure of a song.
But it begs the question: is it possible for a song to feature too many repeating things? When is repetition within a song simply too much?
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There are some interesting examples of excessive repetition in the world of music. Back in 1922, the French composer Maurice Ravel composed what became his most famous orchestral work, Bolero.
Bolero consists of two 18-bar melodies repeated over and over again (17 times), with the only change happening in the instrumentation of the melody. That much repetition would usually be severely problematic, but because of the gradual orchestral build, the piece ends with great excitement.
In pop music, there are other examples of excessive repetition that just seems to work. The coda section of “Hey Jude”, of course, is a good example, where the coda is longer than the main body of the song. The ending of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is another good Beatles example of a constantly repeating coda.
I don’t know why, but it always bothered me that America’s “Sister Golden Hair” repeats the intro and second verse lyric (“Well I keep on thinking ’bout you…”) as the third verse. I’ve always felt that the third verse begs for something else. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it doesn’t.
In all the examples of songs we can name where repetition is noticeable, the repetition isn’t something we merely tolerate: we actually (usually) like it.
So in assessing your own song for repetition, if you’re wondering if the repetitious part is simply too much, the process involves listening to your song objectively — as if someone else wrote it. And then ask yourself, “Does this repetition add to the song, or subtract from the song?”
Some common examples of excessive repetition that should be noticeable:
- Too many verses.
- Verses that repeat the same phrase too many times.
- Too many repeating lines of lyric that don’t add to the substance or meaning of the song.
But there are other repeating aspects of songs that are less obvious on first listen, but could be weakening the structure of the music:
- Using the same tone set (i.e., the same notes) for the verse and chorus melody, even if the melodies are different.
- Using a backing rhythmic pattern with no melody or solo above it. (Audience is waiting for something to happen, but nothing does.
- A simple strumming intro that goes on too long.
In a way, it’s a bit like walking a tightrope, where a bit of repetition is a good thing, but too much is… to put it simply, too much of a good thing.
If there is one overarching principle involved, it’s this: does the repetition add to the power or structure of the song? The answer to that question should be immediately obvious. And if it isn’t obvious, it’s probably hurting more than helping your song.
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