Repetition (music)

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Repeat sign Repeatsign.svg
Repeat sign

Repetition is important in music, where sounds or sequences are often repeated. It may be called restatement, such as the restatement of a theme. While it plays a role in all music, with noise and musical tones lying along a spectrum from irregular to periodic sounds,(Moravcsik, 114)(Rajagopal, [ page needed ]) it is especially prominent in specific styles.



A literal repetition of a musical passage is often indicated by the use of a repeat sign, or the instructions da capo or dal segno.

Repetition is a part and parcel of symmetry—and of establishing motifs and hooks. You find a melodic or rhythmic figure that you like, and you repeat it throughout the course of the melody or song. This sort of repetition...helps to unify your melody; it's the melodic equivalent of a steady drumbeat, and serves as an identifying factor for listeners. However, too much of a good thing can get annoying. If you repeat your figure too often, it will start to bore the listener.

(Miller, 106)

Memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music. As scores of theorists and philosophers have is based on repetition. Music works because we remember the tones we have just heard and are relating them to the ones that are just now being played. Those groups of tones—phrases—might come up later in the piece in a variation or transposition that tickles our memory system at the same time as it activates our emotional centers...(Levitin, 162-163)

Repeat sign with first and second endings Volta music.PNG
Repeat sign with first and second endings

Theodor Adorno criticized repetition and popular music as being psychotic and infantile. In contrast, Richard Middleton (1990) argues that "while repetition is a feature of all music, of any sort, a high level of repetition may be a specific mark of 'the popular'" and that this allows an, "enabling" of "an inclusive rather than exclusive audience"(Middleton 1990, p. 139). "There is no universal norm or convention" for the amount or type of repetition, "all music contains repetition - but in differing amounts and of an enormous variety of types." This is influenced by "the political economy of production; the 'psychic economy' of individuals; the musico-technological media of production and reproduction (oral, written, electric); and the weight of the syntactic conventions of music-historical traditions" (Middleton 1990, p. 268).

Segno SegnoTeken.svg

Thus Middleton (also 1999) distinguishes between discursive and musematic repetition. A museme is a minimal unit of meaning, analogous to morpheme in linguistics, and musematic repetition is "at the level of the short figure, often used to generate an entire structural framework." Discursive repetition is "at the level of the phrase or section, which generally functions as part of a larger-scale 'argument'." He gives "paradigmatic case[s]": the riff and the phrase. Musematic repetition includes circularity, synchronic relations, and openness. Discursive repetition includes linearity, rational control, and self-sufficiency. Discursive repetition is most often nested (hierarchically) in larger repetitions and may be thought of as sectional, while musematic repetition may be thought of as additive. (p. 146-8) Put more simply, musematic repetition is simple repetition of precisely the same musical figure, such as a repeated chorus. Discursive repetition is, "both repetitive and non-repetitive," (Lott, p. 174), such as the repetition of the same rhythmic figure with different notes.

During the Classical era, musical concerts were highly expected events, and because someone who liked a piece of music could not listen to it again, musicians had to think of a way to make the music sink in. Therefore, they would repeat parts of their song at times, making music like sonata very repetitive, without being dull.(Bowen)

Repetition is important in musical form. The repetition of any section of ternary form results in expanded ternary form and in binary form the repetition of the first section at the end of the second results in rounded binary form.(Benward & Saker, 315) Schenker argued that musical technique's, "most striking and distinctive characteristic" is repetition (Kivy, 327) while Boulez argues that a high level of interest in repetition and variation (analogy and difference, recognition and the unknown) is characteristic of all musicians, especially contemporary, and the dialectic [conversation] between the two creates musical form.(Campbell, 154)

"Au clair de la lune", repetition after digression.(Copland & Slatkin) Play (help*info) Au clair de la lune repetition.png
"Au clair de la lune", repetition after digression.(Copland & Slatkin) Loudspeaker.svg Play  
"Ach! du lieber Augustin", repetition after digression.(Copland & Slatkin) Play (help*info) Ach! due lieber Augustin repetition.png
"Ach! du lieber Augustin", repetition after digression.(Copland & Slatkin) Loudspeaker.svg Play  
"The Seeds of Love" (English folk song), nonrepetition.(Copland & Slatkin) Play (help*info) The Seeds of Love repetition.png
"The Seeds of Love" (English folk song), nonrepetition.(Copland & Slatkin) Loudspeaker.svg Play  

Types of repetition include "exact repetition" (aaa), "repetition after digression" (aba or aba'), and "nonrepetition" (abcd). Copland and Slatkin offer "Au clair de la lune" and "Ach! du lieber Augustin" Loudspeaker.svg Play   as examples of aba, and "The Seeds of Love" as an example of the last.(Copland & Slatkin, [unpaginated])

At the tone level, repetition creates a drone.

Repetitive music

Some music features a relatively high degree of repetition in its creation or reception. Examples include minimalist music, krautrock, disco (and its later derivatives such as house music), some techno, some of Igor Stravinsky's compositions, barococo and the Suzuki method. (Fink 2005, p. 5)

Other important genres with repetitive songwriting are post rock, ambient/dark ambient [1] and black metal. [2]

Psychological interpretations

Repetitive music has often been negatively linked with Freudian thanatos. Theodor Adorno (1948, p. 178) provides an example in his criticism of Igor Stravinsky, whose, "rhythmic procedures ostinato closely resemble the schema of catatonic conditions. In certain schizophrenics, the process by which the motor apparatus becomes independent leads to infinite repetition of gestures or words, following the decay of the ego." Similar criticism was levelled at Ravel's Bolero.

Wim Mertens (1980, p. 123-124) argues that "In repetitive music, repetition in the service of the death instinct prevails. Repetition is not repetition of identical elements, so it is not reproduction, but the repetition of the identical in another guise. In traditional music, repetition is a device for creating recognizability, reproduction for the sake of the music notes of that specific line and the representing ego. In repetitive music, repetition does not refer to eros and the ego, but to the libido and to the death instinct."

Repetitive music has also been linked with Lacanian jouissance. David Schawrz (1992, p. 134) argues that the repetition in John Adams's Nixon in China is "trapping listeners in a narrow acoustic corridor of the Real" while Naomi Cumming (1997, p. 129–152) argues that the repetitive string ostinatos of Steve Reich's Different Trains are "prearticulate" pieces of the Real providing a refuge from the Holocaust and its "horror of identification."

Genres that use repetitive music

DJs at disco clubs in the 1970s played a smooth mix of long single disco records to keep people dancing all night long. The twelve-inch single was popularized as a means to this end. While disco songs do have some repetitive elements, such as a persistent throbbing beat, these repetitive elements were counterbalanced by the musical variety provided by orchestral arrangements and disco mixes that added different sound textures to the music, ranging from a full, orchestral sound to stripped-down break sections.

The electronic dance music genres that followed disco in the 1980s and 1990s, such as house music and techno kept the bass drum rhythm introduced by disco but did not use the orchestral arrangements or horn sections. House and techno had a more minimalist sound that layered electronic sounds and samples over a drum machine drum part and a repetitive synth bass bassline.

Extremely repetitive song structures are also used by some black metal bands like Burzum, [3] Darkthrone, Forgotten Woods, Lustre and Striborg.

See also

Related Research Articles

House is a genre of electronic dance music characterized by a repetitive four-on-the-floor beat and a tempo of 120 to 130 beats per minute. It was created by DJs and music producers from Chicago's underground club culture in the 1980s, as DJs from the subculture began altering disco songs to give them a more mechanical beat and deeper basslines.

Rhythm generally means a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions". This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time can apply to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or frequency of anything from microseconds to several seconds ; to several minutes or hours, or, at the most extreme, even over many years.

Atonality Music that lacks a tonal center or key

Atonality in its broadest sense is music that lacks a tonal center, or key. Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day, where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another. More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. "The repertory of atonal music is characterized by the occurrence of pitches in novel combinations, as well as by the occurrence of familiar pitch combinations in unfamiliar environments".

Music theory Considers the practices and possibilities of music

Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. The Oxford Companion to Music describes three interrelated uses of the term "music theory". The first is the "rudiments", that are needed to understand music notation ; the second is learning scholars views on music from antiquity to the present; the third a sub-topic of musicology that "seeks to define processes and general principles in music". The musicological approach to theory differs from music analysis "in that it takes as its starting-point not the individual work or performance but the fundamental materials from which it is built."

In music, serialism is a method of composition using series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres or other musical elements. Serialism began primarily with Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, though some of his contemporaries were also working to establish serialism as a form of post-tonal thinking. Twelve-tone technique orders the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, forming a row or series and providing a unifying basis for a composition's melody, harmony, structural progressions, and variations. Other types of serialism also work with sets, collections of objects, but not necessarily with fixed-order series, and extend the technique to other musical dimensions, such as duration, dynamics, and timbre.

A riff is a repeated chord progression or refrain in music ; it is a pattern, or melody, often played by the rhythm section instruments or solo instrument, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a musical composition. Though riffs are most often found in rock music, heavy metal music, Latin, funk and jazz, classical music is also sometimes based on a riff, such as Ravel's Boléro. Riffs can be as simple as a tenor saxophone honking a simple, catchy rhythmic figure, or as complex as the riff-based variations in the head arrangements played by the Count Basie Orchestra.

In music, an ostinato[ostiˈnaːto] is a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice, frequently in the same pitch. Well-known ostinato-based pieces include both classical compositions, such as Ravel's Boléro and the Carol of the Bells, and popular songs such as Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1959), and The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (1997).

A nonchord tone (NCT), nonharmonic tone, or embellishing tone is a note in a piece of music or song that is not part of the implied or expressed chord set out by the harmonic framework. In contrast, a chord tone is a note that is a part of the functional chord. Non-chord tones are most often discussed in the context of the common practice period of classical music, but they can be used in the analysis of other types of tonal music as well, such as Western popular music.

In music, form refers to the structure of a musical composition or performance. In his book, Worlds of Music, Jeff Todd Titon suggests that a number of organizational elements may determine the formal structure of a piece of music, such as "the arrangement of musical units of rhythm, melody, and/or harmony that show repetition or variation, the arrangement of the instruments, or the way a symphonic piece is orchestrated", among other factors.

Motif (music)

In music, a motif(pronunciation)  is a short musical phrase, a salient recurring figure, musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance in or is characteristic of a composition: "The motive is the smallest structural unit possessing thematic identity".

Minimal music is a form of art music or other compositional practice that employs limited or minimal musical materials. Prominent features of minimalist music include repetitive patterns or pulses, steady drones, consonant harmony, and reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units. It may include features such as phase shifting, resulting in what is termed phase music, or process techniques that follow strict rules, usually described as process music. The approach is marked by a non-narrative, non-teleological, and non-representational approach, and calls attention to the activity of listening by focusing on the internal processes of the music.

A museme is a minimal unit of musical meaning, analogous to a morpheme in linguistics, "the basic unit of musical expression which in the framework of one given musical system is not further divisible without destruction of meaning." A museme may:

Aesthetics of music

Aesthetics of music is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste in music, and with the creation or appreciation of beauty in music. In the pre-modern tradition, the aesthetics of music or musical aesthetics explored the mathematical and cosmological dimensions of rhythmic and harmonic organization. In the eighteenth century, focus shifted to the experience of hearing music, and thus to questions about its beauty and human enjoyment of music. The origin of this philosophic shift is sometimes attributed to Baumgarten in the 18th century, followed by Kant.

In music theory, prolongation is the process in tonal music through which a pitch, interval, or consonant triad is able to govern spans of music when not physically sounding. It is a central principle in the music-analytic methodology of Schenkerian analysis, conceived by Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker.

<i>Filosofem</i> 1996 studio album by Burzum

Filosofem is the fourth studio album by Norwegian black metal solo project Burzum. It was recorded in March 1993 and was the last recording before Varg Vikernes was sentenced to prison in 1994; the album was not released until January 1996, however. It was released through Misanthropy Records and Vikernes' own record label, Cymophane Productions. A music video was made for the song "Dunkelheit" and received airtime on both MTV and VH1.

Musical technique

Musical technique is the ability of instrumental and vocal musicians to exert optimal control of their instruments or vocal cords in order to produce the precise musical effects they desire. Improving one's technique generally entails practicing exercises that improve one's muscular sensitivity and agility. Technique is independent of musicality. Compositional technique is the ability and knowledge composers use to create music, and may be distinguished from instrumental or performance technique, which in classical music is used to realize compositions, but may also be used in musical improvisation. Extended techniques are distinguished from more simple and more common techniques. Musical technique may also be distinguished from music theory, in that performance is a practical matter, but study of music theory is often used to understand better and to improve techniques. Techniques such as intonation or timbre, articulation, and musical phrasing are nearly universal to all instruments.

Philosophy of music is the study of "fundamental questions about the nature of music and our experience of it". The philosophical study of music has many connections with philosophical questions in metaphysics and aesthetics. Some basic questions in the philosophy of music are:

Klang (music)

In music, klang is a term sometimes used to translate the German Klang, a highly polysemic word. Technically, the term denotes any periodic sound, especially as opposed to simple periodic sounds. In the German lay usage, it may mean "sound" or "tone", "musical tone", "note", or "timbre"; a chord of three notes is called a Dreiklang, etc.

Aaron Copland wrote the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra in 1924. It represents a major work in the composer's oeuvre, as it was his first fully realized orchestral work, his first work for organ, and the first piece whose orchestration he heard. In 1928, Copland re-orchestrated the work without organ as his Symphony No. 1, rewriting the organ part in the brass and adding saxophone.

The speech-to-song illusion is an auditory illusion discovered by Diana Deutsch in 1995. A spoken phrase is repeated several times, without altering it in any way, and without providing any context. This repetition causes the phrase to transform perceptually from speech into song.


  1. Aphex Twin:Selected Ambient Works Volume II
  2. Ben Ratliff (November 16, 2009). "Repetitive Guitar Strums Rooted in Metal but Not Confined by It". The New York Times.
  3. Burzum


Further reading