There are many techniques in songwriting and composing to help push your music above the average standard, much akin to directing a film or writing a novel. One technique which shows up in all three mediums is repetition. Despite its simplicity, as a method, it can be used to great effect to grab the audience, which makes it one of my favourite applications to use in music. In recent times I have seen complaints that repetition is lazy but there are artists out there who prove how powerful a device it can be. So let me take you through some of my favourite examples of how repetition has been used to take music to a new level. Although, these examples span across multiple genres and decades I’m going to start in my wheelhouse…
Orla Gartland is an Irish singer/songwriter I discovered many years ago through YouTube. Starting out posting self-recorded covers and originals on her channel, Gartland didn’t have much room to work with, which meant she made the most of what she had. Specifically, the clever use of a looper. Loopers feedback whatever you record into them, making the very definition of repetition. However, this allowed Gartland to have a bigger sound than just the common vocal and guitar and it also gave her a distinct voice that has carried into her debut album - ‘Woman on the Internet’. Two great tracks from the album where repetition stands out are ‘Things That I’ve Learned’ and ‘Zombie!’. Both reinforce their themes through repetition in their lyrics; be it learning by repeating mistakes over and over and the monotonous almost cyclical lifestyle the person ‘Zombie!’ is about leads. The technique also works its way into her music, repeating memorable indie riffs on the guitar and electronic rhythmic percussion which provides a heart thumping constant throughout. It must be noted that repetition isn’t the only hallmark of Gartland who also writes stark truthful lyrics about today’s society, great dynamic shifts between sections and has a ludicrously soft but powerful vocal. When her debut album was released, it was by far the freshest sound I had heard that year and I wasn’t alone in praise for it. It brought her sound and smart writing technique to the forefront. While repetition is nothing new, Gartland is using it in a new way that will only continue to evolve and succeed in what she does next.
Whilst Gartland is possibly the newest popular artist using repetition in her work, many musicians have been experimenting with the device for much longer, one of which is the quirky rock/pop duo Sparks. It feels like Sparks have always been around in some form, but they first came to my full attention through their Edgar Wright directed documentary The Sparks Brothers. A hugely informative and interesting watch for any musician, it was fascinating seeing their composing methods. Throughout their career they have used repetitive song structures most notably in their 2002 self-proclaimed “career defining-opus” album, Lil’ Beethoven. The record was composed of only strings, piano and multi-tracked vocals harking back to the classical inspirations behind it. Of course, repetition itself is a nod to classical music as classical pieces were often composed of sections that would return and repeat with little variation. This was because in that period you couldn’t record works, so the melodies had to be memorable for it to stick with people and a way of ensuring that memorability is by repetition. One song in particular on Lil’ Beethoven which takes the technique to the next level is ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ which only ever features the title as a lyric. This line is repeated over 100 times, yet somehow is so enigmatic and enthralling it feels as though a story is still being told. Despite being the same 5 words, the different inflections and emphasis placed in certain parts of the song elevate it and convey meaning. Many piano motifs also recur in each respective song and come back round to provide a sense of completion. Sparks have always pushed the boundaries of popular music and genre and Lil’ Beethoven is an excellent example of testing the direction of new music with the flavours of the old because of its use of classical instruments. As evidenced here repetition has been used since the inception of music and continues to be, as we are still not finished getting the most from a simple device.
This is a nice segway into Paul Englishby, a composer for film and screen. You may have heard Englishby’s works before which include Luther and Sunshine on Leith. However, the example I want to use is his incredibly impressive work on the BBC show The Musketeers. A swashbuckling adventure designed to entertain weekend audiences and music is a key component of making that work. Think of your big adventure films like Jurassic Park or Lord of the Rings, they have scores that stick in your head and remain with you well after watching. This is no easy task for a composer, but Englishby manages to achieve this with short catchy motifs which he repeated over and over. While repeating melodies in film score is common, similar to how classical composers would repeat melodies to remain in the minds of the listeners, Englishby tends to build on the each previous melody in dynamic and orchestral composition ensuring each cycle has a different impact. Often he repeats variations of the same motifs over certain sections of the story to indicate the mood of the scene. For example one track ‘The Christening’, which has a powerful slow 5 note build as it’s hook, is played every time there is a heavy emotional beat in the story. When the score returns to that hook within a scene it elevates in volume and vibrato having an emotional pull on the listener to reinforce how they are supposed to feel. The ending composition to the entire series is another highlight as it repeats the same melodic phrase constantly, starting with just a piano playing the notes before building to an entire brass and string section accompanying it. This gradual build over the long goodbye means that it’s crescendo feels earned, mirroring the story appearing on screen. Englishby makes repetition an integral part of most tracks and is smart about how he works it into his pieces, allowing it to highlight the strong melodies giving them deserved emphasis. It is one of the reasons when I write songs I try to maintain as close to the first verse melody as possible when writing a second verse. If you have a great refrain focus on that, don’t throw it away.
When writing my folk inspired song St. John’s, repetition was at the forefront of my mind. Folk songs and sea shanties would often have a refrain to allow other members to join in and sing, something that I wanted to replicate. In truth the song is only made up of 3 significant sections; the hook, the verse and the chorus which change very little in melody throughout the piece. But by using repetition by the end of the song most audiences know the chorus or certainly can hum the hook like they can with sea shanties. Though I am not pushing the device to the extremes like Sparks did, it was fun to play around with and allowed me to practice a technique which I think is invaluable in songwriting. These 3 examples prove that repetition is still beneficial and that in the future we may find new ways to use it. As it is also an easy device to put into practice it is more accessible to beginner songwriters and composers who want to develop their music. I still use repetition particularly when I am writing a guitar solo as I find it useful and important to return to a riff that I can then experiment on top of.
If this blog has opened your eyes let me know! You may even listen back to older pieces of music and notice recurring themes or use of repetition where you never did before. Below I have linked every song I have talked about if you would like to listen. If you like what I do and want to keep up to date you can follow on Instagram and Facebook.