Songwriting

With Great Power, Power, Comes Great Responsibility, Responsibility

Repetition is essential to human existence.  Our brains literally crave repetition in order to understand the world around us.

We use repetition when we learn to talk, to write, even to walk, and certainly when we learn to sing or play a musical instrument.  We use repetition to adopt a habit and to break a habit.  But it doesn’t stop there – we use repetition not only for training, but also for sensing.  Thanks to repetition, we can enjoy the pattern-matching that feeds our brain.

How does this relate to songwriting?  Well, repetition and patterning in songwriting is extremely powerful.  Thanks to repeating patterns of vowel sounds (rhyming), syllables (melodic rhythm), notes and melodic shapes, we train our listeners’ ears to recognize our song, and in the best cases, plant it in their memories so that they hear it in their mind all day long.  This extends to all of the pieces within the song – the rhythms, the harmonies (chords), melodies and countermelodies (both sung and played).

However – and I’ll cast your attention back to the title of this article – that power comes with a responsibility.  Enough repetition will allow you to present a “catchy” song to your listener.  Too much repetition will have them pressing “next” before your song is even finished, and before you can earn applause at the end of your live show, your audience will all have checked email and posted a dozen selfies.

Lyrical Repetition

You can make an important idea land hard on the listener’s brain with a little repetition:

“Come a little closer, closer”

Doesn’t that just strike an image in your brain?  Of course, it loses all power if repeated too many times:

“Come a little closer, closer, closer, closer”

Try underlining your title/hook by repeating it:

I can’t get you out of my head
I can’t get you out of my head

But don’t bore your listener with too much repetition:

I can’t get you out of my head
I can’t get you out of my head
I can’t get you out of my head
I can’t get you out of my head

(This last point goes especially for songs that will enjoy a repeated chorus at the end of the song.  Imagine that chorus repeated two or three times.  Somebody get me a sledgehammer.)

Melodic Repetition

Pay attention to the shape of your melody.  You can repeat your melodic phrase exactly, to train your listeners to recognize (and sing) it.  And you can repeat the shape of your melodic phrase – for example, a melody with five notes that step up will still enjoy the benefits of repetition if you start on a different first note.

You might even write a melody for part of your song, that repeats the same note over and over.  Just don’t overdo it!

Harmonic Repetition

It goes without saying, you’ll hear tons of harmonic repetition (patterning) in modern music.  It can be truly effective in distinguishing one section from another, but only if you use different patterns in the different sections of your song.

For example, your verse might repeat these chords:  I – IV – VI – V, once under each line of your verse melody.  But notice how that progression loses its appeal when it is also used under every line of your chorus melody.  Even the slightest alteration, say using I – V – VI – IV in the chorus, will give each section of your song its own “harmonic DNA”.  Same chords, but different pattern.

Also consider this – if your song sounds like maybe it’s just too long, you might have too much harmonic repetition.  Instead of using a four-chord pattern, played four times under the verse, change it to be an eight-chord pattern, played only twice.  Magically, your song will seem to lose some of its monotony.

For example, changing:

I – IV – VI – V
I – IV – VI – V
I – IV – VI – V
I – IV – VI – V

to:

I – IV – VI – V
VI – V – IV – V
I – IV – VI – V
VI – V – IV – V

makes an incredible difference to the perceived length of your song.  Notice that it still sets a repeating pattern, but doesn’t repeat as often.

Don’t Just Sing Louder

Listen to enough modern music, and it won’t take long before you find yourself hearing a song in which the parts repeat too much.  Whether it’s the same chord progression being used throughout the song, or over-repetition of the melody or lyrics, notice the trap that the artist undoubtedly falls into – singing bigger and louder to try to add excitement to the song.  If the song didn’t suffer from over-repetition, it would have an opportunity to be exciting all on its own.  It’s true what they say – you can’t polish a turd.  Singing bigger and louder to save a poorly-written song is a pretty lame practice.

Strike A Balance

If it were easy, we would already have computers writing hit songs.  As you write, consider how to set up patterns which identify the parts of your song – so that your listener can anticipate their return and rejoice when they return – but beware over-repeating.

And, as the old saying goes, “always leave ’em wanting more”!

1 thought on “With Great Power, Power, Comes Great Responsibility, Responsibility”

  1. Okay, Allister. I’ve avoided too much repetition so far. However, I have a song coming out on Wild Cat (Bill’s favourite) with a repeat at the end. A long repeat. I questioned it. Then thought about the many songs that do exactly that. And I decided that for this one it was alright. In fact, I like it! I like it! I really really like it! 🙂 Thanks, Allister. Good stuff!

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