The Power of Repetitionby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2003
Anyone with children probably already knows more than they ever wanted to know about repetition!
I remember well curling up on the bed with my two little boys to read them their nightly bedtime story. Although they had a shelf full of books, there were three or four whose binding literally fell apart from sheer overuse! I swear I could read the picture book of David and Goliath in my sleep! As an overworked mother of toddlers, I was usually more tired than they were at the end of the day and there were many nights that I literally could not remember finishing the book because I had dozed off somewhere between David choosing the stones and the giant finally "cashing in his chips." And it was a rare evening that one of the boys didn't ask me to "please just read the story one more time." I didn't realize it then, but I was being introduced to one of the most ancient and effective learning tools ever devised by man -- the powerful principle of repetition.
It's almost an innate phenomenon. Human beings somehow need to see, hear and do things again and again in order to acquire any kind of growth or self-improvement. Repetition is essential whether it involves memorizing our multiplication tables, learning to drive a car, or developing "six-pack abs" (in the gym we call them "reps"). When it comes to songwriting, however, I frequently encounter writers who endeavor earnestly not to be repetitious in their songs. Such writers usually express a desire to create songs that are "fresh" and "unique." This may be a noble goal but the reality is that such writers usually end up with songs that are somewhat like maps with no markings leaving their listeners lost and confused.
At the bottom line, I believe, a hit songwriter is someone who is trying to teach the whole world his/her song -- and remember, most of the world is made up of "non-musical people." They are not really looking for "fresh" as much as they are looking for "familiar" -- a melody and lyric that they can remember and hum or whistle in the shower. If you, the songwriter, are not using the powerful principle of repetition to teach the listening audience your song, you may find that you wind up with a catalog of "fresh and creative" numbers that never see the light of day!
In previous articles here on Writers Write, I have explored the important matter of song form in creating hits. We have looked closely at the three main commercial song forms which have dominated popular music over the last century and we have paid special attention to the strategic way the hook (usually also the title) is placed in parallel places several times throughout the song. In fact, we have established that repetition is one of the primary and most essential characteristics of any hook. If a line isn't repeated, you just thought it was the hook! In the AAA Song the hook/title usually occurs at the end of each verse to form a refrain. In the AABA Song, the hook/title may occur either at the first line or last line of each A Section, and of course, in the Verse-Chorus Song, the hook/title ideally occurs at the beginning and the end of each chorus, and perhaps in the middle of the chorus as well. In each Song Form the most memorable lyrical line (lyrical hook) and the most memorable melodic line (musical hook) should occur simultaneously and repeatedly. Why? To imprint that phrase indelibly on the listener's mind! To teach the listener the song!
Savvy songwriters know instinctively how to use both melodic and lyrical repetition effectively without allowing it to become monotonous or annoying. Let's take a look of some of the more subtle ways a writer can use repetition to make a song memorable.
- Repeated Secondary Melodic Hook (Riff) -- We are
becoming quite familiar with the concept of the hook by now
and we can probably identify it in almost any commercial song
we hear on the radio. However, it usually takes at least a
verse before we are introduced to the main hook or title of
the song in the refrain or the chorus. Experienced songwriters
don't want to let too much time elapse before they engage
the listener's ear, so they often make use of another
repeated element called a riff. A riff is a short musical
phrase that is completely distinct from the hook or any of
the musical phrases in the verses. It usually is part of the
introduction and it keeps reappearing in the musical sections
between the verses and again perhaps at the end of the song
as an outro. The riff acts as a "secondary musical hook" that
draws listener interest and maintains it to the end of the
A wonderful example of a riff used as a secondary hook is the incredible syncopated piano part that forms the introduction and interludes in the song Walking on Broken Glass written and performed by Annie Lennox. It captures the feel of the title, but it is completely different from the main musical/lyrical hook which kicks in a couple of bars later.
- Melodic Repetition with Lyrical and/or Harmonic
Variation -- This technique is often used in a chorus to
drive home the melodic hook. The melody of the hook line is
repeated several times, but the lyrics and/or the harmonies
surrounding the musical hook phrase are changed to prevent
monotony. Sometimes, the lyrics are the only thing that changes
as in the famous Carpenter hit, We've Only Just Begun, written
by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols. In this wonderful AABA song,
the main hook is clearly presented in the first line of the
first A section (We've only just begun...). In the first line
of the second verse or A section, we hear the very same melody
and harmony, but the lyrics have changed (Before the rising sun...).
In the last A section, we find that same melodic line, but with
the lyric changing again (And when the evening comes...). Note
also that these lines all rhyme with each other reinforcing
the familiarity of the now recognizable musical hook.1
Another way to repeat the melodic hook without becoming boring is to change the harmonies under the musical phrase. A great example of this is the recent hit, I'm Already There, written by Gary Baker, Richie McDonald and Frank Myers and recorded by Lone Star. Next time you hear it on the radio, pay special attention to the chorus. The melodic hook/title is repeated in every line except the next to the last line of the chorus, but the chorus is kept fresh by the change in the lyrics and the harmonies under the repeated melodic phrase. There is something very rewarding for listeners to know that this familiar, singable chorus is coming around again, and believe me... by the time the song is over, they will NOT forget either the melodic or lyrical hook!
- Sequencing -- This is a concept that is important to
both the lyrics and the melody. Melodically speaking, a sequence
starts with a musical phrase and then repeats that phrase at a
higher or lower pitch using the same or similar intervals and
cadence. For example, you may have a musical phrase comprised
of the following notes:
C->E->G->E (or Do->Mi->So->Mi)
You could then create a sequence by using the following combination of notes keeping the same number of counts per note as the original phrase:
D->F->A->F (or Re->Fa->La->Fa)
E->G->B->G (or Mi->So->Ti->So)
A->C->E->C (or La->Do->Mi->Do)
If the lyrics follow a similar sequence, using a series of similar constructions to match the cadence and meter of the music, you have a powerful repetitive device that subtly engraves the music and lyrics on the minds of the listeners. The word for a series of similar lyrical constructions is anaphora. Here's an example from one of my own songs entitled Here I Grow Again:
Just when I thought I had it all togetherAnother example can be found in the B or contrasting "bridge section" of the song mentioned above -- We've Only Just Begun. The first two lines of the bridge repeat melodically but are different lyrically (Sharing horizons that are new to us... Watching for signs along the way). The last two lines of the bridge form a sequence in that the lyrics maintain the same meter and cadence, but the music is raised to a higher place in a different key (Talking it over, just the two of us….Working together day to day).1 Incidentally, it is no accident that Williams and Nichols used anaphora to make these lines similar in construction (each line beginning with the -ing form of the verb -- sharing, watching, talking, working) or that lines 1 and 3 and also 2 and 4 rhyme, further cementing the words and music in the minds of the listeners.
Just when I thought that I was so secure
Just when I thought my storms had all been weathered
Suddenly I'm struggling and I'm unsure...2
JUST READ IT AGAIN!
1We've Only Just Begun by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols
2Here I Grow Again by Mary Dawson and Bruce Greer
© CQK Music/ASCAP
All Rights Reserved/Used by Permission
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.