Repetition as a Songwriting Technique

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Guitar BandEveryone knows the vital role that repetition plays in music of any and all genres. Whether you’re talking about song form (ABABCBB…), the hook, a motif, lyrics, even basic rhythm, you’re talking about determining how things repeat. Listeners take a measure of comfort from hearing musical elements repeat. Some components can repeat over and over again without the listener tiring of it: the song’s beat and basic rhythm, for example. But the repetition of other aspects needs to be carefully controlled. You want melodic shapes to repeat, but if they repeat too much with no attempt at modification, you can bore your audience.

Songs that don’t use repetition at all are probably non-existant. Using verse-chorus format, as most songs do, means that at least melody and lyrics will repeat. And that’s a good thing. As I say, listeners derive comfort from repetition.

But other than repetition of form, rhythm, and the existence of a hook, what else should songwriters be doing to incorporate repetition into their songs? Here are some ideas that relate to repetition, things that will make your songs better:

  1. Repetition of instrumental ideas. In order for something to repeat, you obviously need to allow it to stop occasionally so that the repetition can occur. If your song consists of constant strumming on a guitar, you may be missing out on an opportunity to have repeating instrumental effects. So devise an instrumental backing for your chorus that differs a bit from your verse. Add instruments that increase song energy, such as percussion, another guitar, keyboard, and/or go for higher voicings. Then drop them out at the return of the verse, or wherever you want less energy.
  2. Repetition of melodic motif. A melodic motif is something that has a recognizable shape, something that can be modified as the song progresses. For example, listen to 1997 hit, “Kiss Me” by “Sixpence None the Richer”, and identify the repetitious rhythmic/melodic motif that occurs and develops throughout the song.
  3. Repetition of chord progressions. One modification to consider for your chord progressions is to use the same chords in the chorus that you did in the verse, but change up the order. That way, listeners recognize them as being part of the basic harmonic “language” of the song, but presenting them in a different order will make them sound different enough to avoid boring everyone. For example: VERSE: C F Am G C. CHORUS: C Am F G  C.
  4. Repetition in the song format. If your song starts with an intro, then goes into the verse and chorus, try jumping back to the intro again after your song’s bridge. (Van Halen’s “Jump” does this.)
  5. Repetition of lyrical ideas. As mentioned before, lyrics repeat all the time when you use a verse-chorus format. But there might be different ways to have lyrics repeat. It can be interesting to bring a lyric back and modify it slightly to make a stronger, or different, point. As an example, check out the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”, and the reference to “Gideon’s Bible” that returns at the end of the song. Bringing lyrics back at the end of a long song, or song cycle, is a favourite repetition technique used by progressive rock artists.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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