Have you ever made a track and wondered if it was too repetitive? Too boring?
When I was attending music school, the primary criticism I received from my peers and some teachers was that my music was too repetitive.
This resulted in a serious mental blocks for me. I would produce 32 bars and even though I enjoyed it I feared it falling flat. I imagined what my peers would say.
Well, two years later I’ve finally got a hold on that self-doubt for the most part. I don’t complicate my music just because I imagine someone else being a critic.
This is because repetition is what makes music engaging. It’s what makes music accessible.
It’s what makes people listen.
Why is that?
Why do humans find repetition engaging?
How can we use repetition in a smart way so that it’s engaging rather than boring?
Well, stick with me and we’ll answer all three of those questions here.
Have you ever heard a song and not been able to really get into it… only to find yourself actively listening to it a week or month later?
This happens to me constantly.
For example, I didn’t really enjoy Justin Timberlake’s latest album 20/20 Vision at first. Shortly after it came out, I visited my brother’s house and he was listening to the album on his speakers.
Fast forward a day or two and I’m humming one of the tracks. Next thing I know I’ve dropped 10 bucks on a JT album (absolutely no regrets).
This phenomenon also explains why we enjoy when a song repeats a chorus as well as when individual melody components and phrases within a song repeat.
SHOTS. SHOTS. SHOTS-SHOTS. SHOTS.
SHOTS. SHOTS. SHOTS-SHOTS. SHOTS.
SHOTS. SHOTS. SHOTS-SHOTS. SHOTS-SHOTS.
Ever heard that song before? Shots by LMFAO? They say “shots” quite a number of times during the chorus.
I know a lot of people who berate this kind of repetition and find it musically bland but there’s some ancient mystical musical judo happening here.
A secret sauce so powerful and LMFAO is using it for evil I tell you. Evil.
Why do they do this? Why does most pop music do this?
Because they want their audience to participate. Repetition allows us to participate because we learn what we can expect in the song and then we can join in with the fun by dancing or singing or tapping our feet or humming as we walk down the street.
This kind of banal repetition is done so that the audience can hook themselves in. I can’t really blame them either. The audience for Shots is people who are probably in a club or a party trying to have a good time. They are not terribly interested in fascinating key modulations. They wanna get crunk.
Taking It All In
You know that weird sensation that happens when you repeat a word over and over? Bath. Bath. Bath. Bath. Bath. Bath. Bath. Bath. The “th” sound at the end of that is so weird.
This is a phenomenon called Semantic Satiation and it occurs a bit in music as well.
Each time you repeat the word “bath” your brain begins focusing less on the meaning and more on the acoustics. This is why the words seem to become strange and sound unusual. You’re paying attention to new things.
Similarly, when listening to music on repeat, people tend to focus on different parts or sounds. Have you ever listened to a track for the 56th time and realized there’s some sweet background harmony happening that you never really noticed? Ding ding.
Repetition allows people to dig deep and explore your music.
So repetition is awesome. Sweet. Let’s open our DAWs, create an 8 bar loop and repeat it for 30 minutes.
Eh, hold on a second.
Clearly, there’s a quality to repetition. We want to exercise repetition with finesse.
How can you learn the secret judo mastery of repetition?
Essentially, you want to keep things familiar yet changing.
Remember that. Familiar yet changing.
1) Keep rhythm the same, change the notes
One strong tactic is to change notes but keep the rhythm mostly untouched.
The reason this is effective is because people are much more sensitive to rhythm changes than harmony changes.
For instance, imagine you’re breaking out some dance moves to a song. If that song switched up the rhythm, all of a sudden you’d find yourself in a serious moment of distress. Consider your flow broken.
Imagine the same scenario (you’re dancing like there’s no tomorrow) but instead of the melody going E-F-G-A it goes F-E-A-G.
Great. Pretty sure that didn’t disrupt your movement at all.
I’m not suggesting you never have rhythm changes but be smarter with them. Less is more.
2) Sectional surprises
Think of it like debt. The more you repeat something the more you’re in debt. You acquire this backlog of repetition debt the longer things go on without change.
One way to dump this debt to the wayside is to make large changes at new sections.
Let’s say you’re Verse was musically repetitive. When you get to your Chorus, change up everything.
In fact, sectional changes are great spots to put rhythm changes if you want. Listeners have expectations that when we move into a new section things will be different. We even further this expectation by building tension with transitions and other mechanics.
3) Timbre Change
You have a typical synth melody playing the same four chords for a while.
What’s an easy trick to make the synth part sound less repetitive?
Open the cutoff filter over time. Add an LFO. Make it sound more lifelike.
The point is you’re changing the literal sound of the synth rather than the rhythm or notes.
I reference this track too much but “I Remember” by Deadmau5 and Kaskade is extremely repetitive. Nine minutes of the same damn chord progression.
The primary reason it’s a compelling track is because they modulate timbre which makes it feel far less repetitive. The track is also a great demonstration of energy.
Another example would be to take a clean guitar part and switch on the overdrive at some point.
4) Performance and Expression
Changing how you express a part can make it feel less repetitive while retaining the same familiarity.
Change up the MIDI velocity.
Have your playing become more aggressive.
5) Instrument Change
Similar to timbre change you can re-arrange your track so that certain parts will be repeated but on a different instrument.
For example, you’ve probably heard a rock track where the singer will rock out a chorus and then afterwards the guitar player will play the same melody.
Or imagine you have a sweet high-pitched synth melody for 16 bars before dropping that same note pattern into the bass.
Either way, you keep it familiar with enough pesto that it’s still tasty.
Knowing all of this, there’s still one important piece missing.
What is it?
To really know how to apply repetition effectively, you have to understand and respect expectations.
As I mentioned earlier with the Shots example by LMFAO, the audience for that song is people partying — probably not terribly musically inclined. This is important because that kind of person has expectations for the kind of music they hear.
You play Shots at the Annual Baroque Music Festival and you’ll get maybe that one drunken guy who keeps talking about Rembrandt On Ice to cheer but the majority of people are going to raise their eyebrows. They will not get into it.
You take people at a pool party in South Beach Miami and play Shots and they’ll lose their god damn minds over tequila. Hell, you take that same group of Baroque listeners, throw them into a hype pool party in Miami and they might even enjoy the music in that context.
The point here is that your listeners have expectations. These generally fall into Genre Expectations and Contextual Expectations.
Genre expectations are what you expect to hear from a genre. A minimal house track might be far more repetitive than a typical pop track and that’s perfectly okay because people who listen to minimal house expect that.
Contextual expectations are what you expect given the listening context. Even the stiffest musicians can enjoy the occasional cheeky pop song if they’re having a fun night out at a bar chatting with some buddies over a crisp beer.
When writing music, think about your audience and the context of your song. These two things should inform your use of repetition.