The Chieftains

It Doesn’t Take Much

Every once in a while I write a blog post that refers to the importance of repetition in music, and how song melodies without repetition are problematic because they’re hard to remember.

We already know the power and need for repetition in music when it comes to basic elements like the backing rhythms. Most songs feature drums that play a repetitive figure with occasional fills. Sometimes that backing rhythm – the drum beat — might start the song as a way of introducing a mood or feel, like with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” When the other instruments get added in, it all just sounds right.

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And of course the repeating chord progression within an entire section of a song is standard in songwriting. It’s hard to find examples of songs that keep dishing out new progressions as a section proceeds… they’d be very rare.

We don’t tend to think of melodies as being huge demonstrators of repetition, unless we stop to think about it, and it turns out that melodies are always using repetition. For most songs you’ll hear an opening few notes (a phrase, or even just a mini-phrase), and then what follows will either be an exact repetition (like Adele’s “Someone Like You“), or an approximate repetition (like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi“.)

When it comes to melodies, it doesn’t take much. You can do an entire song with three short melodic ideas. Sometimes traditional folk songs are the best demonstrators of this, as we can hear in MacAllistrum’s March, here performed by the Irish group The Chieftains.

It consists of four short melodies, and each melody is a mere one bar long. So how can you do an entire piece of music with four melodic ideas that are only one bar in length? Repetition. Most of the time, you can repeat an idea exactly as presented up to four times before audiences’ ears start looking for something else.

And that’s what happens in “MacAllistrum’s March.” Each melody is played four times before moving on to the next one. That gives you what sounds like an entire verse (or verse-chorus combo, if that’s the way you hear it) of sixteen bars.

From there, you can repeat the entire sixteen bars, because even melodies comprised of repeated bars can themselves be repeated.

So from an initial set of four extremely short, one-bar ideas, “MacAllistrum’s March” winds up being a great tune of 3 minutes in length.

As I say, it doesn’t take much.

This is not me telling you that if you write a melody that’s longer than a bar you’re wasting time and effort. But when you choose to think about it, you’ll be pleased to know that repetition isn’t just something we tolerate as listeners — it’s something we want.

Melodic repetition allows us to enjoy a melodic phrase all the more. Sometimes you can repeat the melody with the exact same chords, as in MacAllistrum’s March, or you might keep changing chords underneath that melody for each repetition, as I wrote about recently in my blog article “Repeating a Short Melodic Fragment: The Chords Keep it Interesting.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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