Psychologists will tell you that pattern recognition is a bit of an area of expertise for most humans. Our brains just seem to be wired to seek out any and all occurrences of patterns. We get a kind of pleasure from seeing and experiencing patterns.
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Most of the time we think of visual patterns when we talk about pattern recognition (faces in shadows, on a piece of toast… that sort of thing.) But aural patterns — the kind we notice when we hear sounds — are the kind that musicians take notice of.
Even as we do something as simple as walking, we notice the obvious pattern created by our footsteps. Our breathing, our heartbeat — these are all important physically-related patterns that have nothing to do with sound, per se.
Patterns in Music
Patterns are at the core of practically every piece of music you know. Even abstract works, like Lennon & McCartney’s “Revolution 9” from the White Album, though there are no beats or patterns established in the traditional sense of music beats, consists of many repeating elements.
A typical song with a guitar/keyboards-bass-drums kind of instrumentation will have patterns that we’ve come to expect over the many decades of pop music history. Listen to almost any song, from Little Richard’s “Lucille“, to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al“, to “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd, and you’ll hear instrumental backing tracks that start the song by pulling us in with repeating patterns.
Repeating chord progressions and repeating lyrics are two more important elements that rely on the listeners’ desire to hear patterns in music.
And there’s one other that’s perhaps more important than any of these: pattern recognition with regard to melody.
When we hear melodies, our brains will process those melodies in a phrase-by-phrase kind of way. We hear one phrase, and then we typically want to hear the same — or at least approximately the same — kind of melodic construct in the very next phrase.
We hear this in all the songs listed above. Sometimes phrasing is more complex, like in Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”: We hear a first phrase where the phrase moves downward from the first note (“Rows and flows of angel hair…”), followed by a second line that moves mainly upward (“And ice cream castles in the air.”)
Without repeating patterns, music would be very difficult for us to follow or even enjoy. We like the fact that songs are all about patterns. And in fact, you can use the presence or not of patterns as a troubleshooting tool in your own songwriting:
- Do my chord progressions show a moving-away-from and then a moving-toward the tonic chord as a basic pattern in any one section of my song?
- Is there a recognizable pattern in the beat/rhythm structure of my song? (In other words, can people tap their toe to it?)
- Do the backing instruments present musical ideas based on repeating patterns?
- Do my melodies show repetition and patterned structures? (This makes it easy for listeners to recall and sing them.)
Songs without discernible patterns don’t stimulate our minds or draw us in as active listeners. That’s why “mood music” — the kind you might put on quietly in the background while you do some other task around the house — seems devoid of patterns and structured elements.
So if you’re writing songs where you want listeners to become actively engaged and involved, ask yourself, “Am I presenting patterns and structures that are easily recognized?” If that troubleshooting list above yields any “No” answers, you will want to go back to the writing stage and see if you can make modifications to allow for more patterned ideas.
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