The Power of Repetition Part IIby Mary Dawson
The Internet Writing Journal, October 2003
In his book entitled Advertising, author Kenneth Goode writes: "The greatest of all advertising tricks is that of persistently pounding away at the same suggestion while still keeping the appearance of freshness of idea."
The challenge is much the same for the songwriter who -- like the advertiser -- has something to sell. For the salesman, it may be real estate, beauty products, snake oil or used cars. For the songwriter, it's the song! Successful songwriters know how to walk the balance beam between familiarity on the one side and freshness on the other. It takes practice, but developing this skill is well worth the effort.
In my last article we began to examine the powerful teaching tool called repetition and how it can be skillfully used to literally "teach" our song to our listeners. Remember, our objective is to imprint the musical and lyrical hook of the song onto the mind of the listener so indelibly that he/she will whistle it in the shower, sing along with it on the radio and "own" the song emotionally. We specifically looked at several ways to use repetition so that it accomplishes its purpose but does not become boring. We explored:
- The Riff (or repeated secondary melodic hook)
- Melodic Repetition with Lyrical and/or Harmonic Variation
- Sequencing and Anaphora
- Rhyme -- Rhyme, of course, is one of the best and
most familiar of repetitive techniques. The usual definition
of rhyme is corresponding stressed end sounds in two or more
words. When lines rhyme, they reinforce the idea being
communicated and provide a familiar repetitive framework
which helps the listener to remember the song. You think I
jest? Just consider the nursery rhymes you learned as a kid.
I bet you can still remember most of them, right?
Most songwriters instinctively know that they need to use rhyme in their songwriting so they try to rhyme at least the ending words of certain lines. But there is much more skill involved in rhyming than simply putting June at the end of line one and moon at the end of line two. Remember! Our goal is to use repetition WITHOUT becoming boring or predictable. The last thing we want to do is allow the listener to guess the rhyming word two lines before it appears! That will lead to boredom and boredom is the kiss of death for any songwriter!
During the first half of the 20th Century -- especially during the days of Tin Pan Alley -- great songwriters would never allow themselves to write anything but perfect rhymes. Perfect rhymes are those that have exactly the same ending syllable like love...dove...above or June...moon...tune. Today, however, because there are only so many perfect rhymes available for any word, songwriting standards have changed somewhat to allow for near-perfect rhymes as well. These are words that have the same vowel sound, but may have different consonants such as known...home or change...age. There is still enough similarity to take advantage of the repetitive sound while simultaneously providing a little freshness and surprise for the listener's ear. One of the best ways to study creative rhyming patterns and techniques is to simply write out the lyrics of some great songs and observe the writer's choice of words and rhyming strategies. Songwriters like Beth Neilsen-Chapman, Sting, Don Henley, Rob Thomas, and Craig Wiseman are rhyme-smiths worth studying in depth.
- Assonance -- You may recall this word from somewhere
in the dark recesses of your high school English classes.
Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound and has often been
called the "vowel rhyme." It is similar to the near-perfect
rhymes described above but assonance can be used more frequently
within a song than simply to create "end rhymes." Repeated
vowel sounds can be used within the lines to create a
repetitive coherence that subliminally reinforces the words
in the listener's mind. Here's an example from one of my own
songs called Surrender:
The sea gulls glide on streams of air
They rise so high they touch the sky
Just like a silent prayer
Surrender - Mary Dawson, Tom Braxton, Joe Ninowski
©1998 All Rights Reserved
- Alliteration -- Alliteration is often called "head rhyme"
because it is the repetition of stressed consonant sounds
within a line. Childhood tongue-twisters like "Peter Piper
picked a peck of pickled peppers," are examples of extreme
alliteration. Although you would not necessarily want to
use that much alliteration in a serious song, it can
definitely be yet another repetitive device that will make
your song memorable.
The incomparable Joni Mitchell used both assonance and alliteration expertly in her 1970's hit, Big Yellow Taxi when she created these memorable lines:
Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got til it's goneNotice the assonance in the first line created around the long "O" sound….and the alliterated consonant "G" in line one and "P" in line two.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell
©1970 Siquomb Publishing (BMI)
All Rights Reserved
Assonance and alliteration can also be very useful in creating catchy titles that will be remembered by the listener such as Betty's Got a Bass Boat by Bernie Nelson and Craig Wiseman (alliteration) and Your Kiss is On My List by Daryl Hall and John Oates (assonance).
- The Return -- A return is the repetition of all or
part of the first verse of a song as the concluding "tag" at
the end. Accomplished songwriters know that next to the refrain
or the chorus, the most memorable lines of almost any song are
the first lines of the first verse. These are the listener's
first encounter with both the words and music of the song and
the place where he/she first becomes engaged or interested in
the song. If, then, these opening lines are repeated again at
the very end of the song, an almost "circular" conclusion
occurs -- reinforcing those first memorable words and notes
and cementing them in the listener's mind. A great example
of the return is Marc Cohn's great song, Walking in
Memphis. The first lines say:
I put on my blue suede shoesThese lines are repeated very effectively after the last chorus -- as a coda or tag -- to conclude the song.
And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain
Walking in Memphis - Marc Cohn
©1991 Famous Music Publishing
All Rights Reserved
- Background Singers -- I would certainly be remiss if I did not include a word about the importance of background singers in our discussion of repetition. Background vocalists can be used very strategically to reinforce the hook in a more subdued and subliminal manner than the lead vocal is able to do. Country, Pop and R&B songs -- as well as hip-hop -- often use background singers in intros, between verses, in the choruses and as vamps at the end of songs to subtly drive home the hook/title. For examples of great background repetition, mosey on down to Motown and study the great songs of the 60's and 70's -- especially those songs recorded by groups like the Supremes and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
At the risk of repeating myself -- keep writing!
**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.