I'm sure we've all at one point or another found ourselves in a rowdy impromptu sing along to one of the great musical classics. Whether it was Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" or Beyonce's "Single Ladies", it's hard to deny the hypnotic effect these songs seem to have. Believe it or not, your songs can have this same effect on people.
If you are looking to write music that is memorable, then you need to immerse yourself into the world of repetition. More specifically, you need to develop an ear for creating rhythms and repetitions that are interesting. Establishing patterns within your music (whether its lyrics or instrumental) is a great tool for building intrigue and tension. It is also exactly what makes some music more catchy than others.
If this is something that you feel like does not come naturally to you, you are not alone. A lot of beginner song writers have similar feelings and unfortunately let those feelings stop them from writing lyrics altogether. Just like anything else in music, this is a skill that needs to be practiced and worked on over time.
Luckily, if you are reading this article right now, that means that you care about your writing and you are actively seeking out ways to perfect your craft. Thats awesome! So continue reading and I will share with your my best tips for incorporating repetition into your lyrics.
To start off, let's take a look at the soft rock classic everyone knows and loves that is "Every Breath You Take" by The Police.
The lyrics are as follows:
Every breath you take/ Every move you make/ Every bond you break/ Every step you take/ I'll be watching you
You might notice the repetition Sting uses in this tune is "Every THING you VERB". This is a rhetorical device known as "Isocolon", which basically means a phrase with parallel structure.
This particular phrase is repeated four times until the very last line where he finally breaks the pattern to signify that the verse is complete.
This final line is what gives a sense of closure to the statement. "Every breath you take" doesn't really make sense as a stand alone lyric. Neither does "Every move you make". However, the use of all these lyrics together is what builds tension in this section until Sting finally completes the thought with "I'll be watching you".
Not only is this a great tool for adding suspense, but it will also make your lyric writing a lot easier. All you need to do is to think of a single lyrical thought, and change it ever so slightly to state the same thing in different ways.
Now lets take a look at an excerpt from "The Memory Remains" by Metallica:
Ash to ash/ Dust to dust/ Fade to black
Once again, the rhetorical device known as Isocolon (i.e parallel structure) makes its way into popular music. The repetition begins with two lines of "THING to SAME THING". While the last line looks and feels the same as the first two, its meaning is slightly altered by using a "VERB to THING" structure. One might even say that the use of the word "to" in the final line has an altered meaning to the way it was used previously.
This kind of pattern makes the listener feel a little comfortable in the song, like they know what they are going to hear next, until SURPRISE! You change it on them ever so slightly (or drastically if you want). It makes the ears perk up and pay attention.
To expand on your repetitions means to find an idea or phrase, and repeat the general idea, but build on it using more and more words. REM has a great example of this in their song "The Great Beyond":
I'm breaking through/ I'm bending spoons/ I'm keeping flowers in full bloom/ I'm looking for answers from the great beyond
The repeated phrase here goes "I'm VERBING SOMETHING", and the "thing" is contained to one word. As it repeats, more and more words are used to help describe that "thing". The expansion (which can be described as an "Expanding Isocolon") builds an intensity within the lyrics and adds a sense of drama in this verse.
It is quite easy to find this technique being used in popular writing, however, the same can't be said for diminishing repetitions (when the phrases get shorter and shorter). If you find an example feel free to share it in the comments.
Feeling excited about repetition yet? Well before you do anything else, I have one final challenge for you. Put all this new knowledge to test and see if you can find at least one musical example for each of the repetition techniques I discussed in this article. After that, please go ahead and post your findings in the comments. I'd love to see what you come up with.
Completing this simple challenge will do wonders for building your ear for repetition. Repetition will soon come so naturally to you that you may not even realize that you are doing it. So go ahead and have fun with it!
Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.
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