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Composer’s Forum: Repetition in Music

Gerry Bassermann

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To connect with your audience, anything worth playing is worth playing again.

To repeat or not to repeat? That’s this month’s question. There are all kinds of musical creators, from never repeaters to repeat repeaters and everything in between. I am both. Even while jamming, I frequently torture myself with this question.

I try to read the group in the moment. If they’re the experimentalist lunatic-fringe characters, then I’m for sure thinking that my musical repetitions are boring them. Otherwise, I try to be a socially aware player who’s working the chord changes reliably with perhaps an appetite for variation. (That is, if I can remember the song form, because I am a born noodler with a penchant for simply choosing the next whole or half step in the moment.)

Some say that the goal of art, if art has a goal, is to communicate. How does repetition affect our communications? Poets rarely repeat verbatim, and when they do, it provides a stark and powerful emphasis. Orators use the device frequently to burn words into the listener’s memory. Painters repeat techniques from work to work and, in effect, create the brand that becomes them. It would seem that communicators use repetition for both emphasis and persistence of memory. 

Music Is Different

Musicians are also communicators, but the parallels to other art forms end there. Music is often called the most abstract art form, because it does not have rational meaning and therefore does not convey ideas per se. One speaks of musical ideas, but really, these contain emotional content rather than information. They communicate feelings that vary from listener to listener. Repetition can supply a recognizable connection for the listener, who needs to process the input with more than just their brain.

Repetition in music example #1

All of this is to say that repetition in music strengthens the bond between the music and the audience, giving them some sense of expectation and helping with their recall. The music does not simply play at them; it includes them. Whether a musical idea is repeated or not sets up an almost game-like relationship with an otherwise passive listener. Expectations can be granted or denied, producing satisfaction or excitement, both positive results. For the music and the listener, it’s a big win-win.

As Above, So Below

Musical form is largely derived from the concept of repetition and variation. Pop songs are constructed from simple sectional arrangements like verse-chorus forms, where the repetitions can be consecutive or returned to (e.g., AABA). The only feeling that rivals moving on to a new section is perhaps the return to a former one. Classical forms such as sonata-allegro and, of course, theme and variations are based around similar ideas. By contrast, the 20th century introduced the idea of through composed music: no repeats, reiterations, or returns of any kind. The work of Anton Webern exhibits this concept of onward exploration and challenges listeners to this day.

Zooming in to phrase level, the same questions exist. Repeat this chord change? Repeat this melody a little differently? If so, how many times? How differently? Or completely surprise the listener with a fresh direction? I start questioning choices almost immediately as I first play an interesting idea that’s caught my attention. The goal is to shape the material so that it progresses naturally and plays like it had to be that way.

The only danger here is to overthink or overwork the choices (or, of course, to not ask these questions in the first place). Did Mozart review and question in such a way? Probably not. I suspect he played the new phrase a few different ways, wrote down the one that charmed him most, and then moved on to the next phrase.

Repetition in music composer

Habit Energy

The reason for this kind of investigation is that composers work in many automatic ways that are completely habitual and need to be reviewed. All genres have certain conventions that shouldn’t be mindlessly applied, lest the music lack individual character. Others are things like one’s favorite keys (guitarists beware), the dominance of common time (4/4 time signature), or the formulaic adherence to popular or trending techniques (think auto-tune, side-chained kicks, pre-choruses, etc). Perhaps the single most dogmatic thing that composers do without thinking concerns phrase lengths, where 2-, 4-, 8-, 12-, and 16-bar lengths dominate without the composer having considered these lengths at all. 

Know Whatcha Got 

Before deciding what to simply repeat or how to vary the material, however, it is important to know the personality of the music you’re creating: the feel, the groove, the soul, the mood. Not only do bpm and swing settings make this vibe happen, but indeed, all choices should serve the music’s persona. Nothing is more important than getting the feel of this as early as possible in the writing process. Once you know the nature of the tune or piece of music, you can make the best decisions about the phrase lengths, how you mix the repeated material with the new stuff, how many times this or that happens, and even the form of the music itself. Don’t just throw a bridge section in there because you think every song needs a bridge.

To Repeat or Not To Repeat? YES!

Check out Prince’s song “Joy of Repetition,” a completely strophic groove that is like one big long location shot at the start of a movie; through simple repetition, the music places you somewhere. And without being somewhere to start with, you can’t very well go anywhere.

Similarly, the first opera of Wagner’s (four-opera) Ring cycle, “Das Rheingold,” begins with 136 bars of nothing but Eb chords rising from the river depths, establishing the start of an epic lasting sixteen hours. However, the music then goes on a journey full of repeated leitmotifs, recognizable to the audience, as well as soaring new material and unresolved cadences that drive the music forward and heighten excitement. 

Composing music is all about making such decisions, large and small, and balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar. Simple repetition can be compelling, even hypnotic, as evidenced by the profusion of loop-based music so popular right now. It’s also true that clever, crafted variations are artful and appeal to our nuanced, higher minds. Finally, there is nothing like grabbing the listener with an unexpected fresh sound that heads off in a new direction. Put these elements all together when the music you are writing calls for them.

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