Using repetition and variation
Computer Music|March 2021
Dave Clews talks us through how to use repetition in a way that even your harshest critics won’t detect as anything more than ‘catchy’
Dave Clews

Like it or not, repetition is a vital ingredient in music, especially pop. I’m not necessarily talking about the kind of relentless hammering of a chorus hook that makes your parents mutter darkly – annoying parents has been, after all, one of the main remits of pop all along. No, the kind of repetition here is more to do with individual notes, or pairs – specifically using repeated phrases or motifs to build melodic hooks.

The main idea behind repeating elements in your music, be it individual notes, small groups of notes or even complete hooks, is to fix the tune firmly in your listener’s ear, so that they both expect it when it happens again, and remember it once it’s over. It’s all part of the ‘singalongability’ factor that’s an essential component of any successful hit.

All that said, mere repetition alone runs the risk of proving our parents right and becoming a bit boring. We can combat this by adding slight variations to the repeats, combining the best of both worlds and hopefully ending up with a hooky, memorable tune.

So if you ever find yourself stuck for a melody to fit over some chords, the technique shown in our walkthrough here could be a great way to produce the sort of earworm melody that should stick in your audience’s mind both during and after the song.

1 Here we have a track made up of a four-bar progression with a rhythm track and chords already established, so we’re going to try to come up with a suitable melody to go on top. The chords are Gm > Gm > Bb > F, and those repeated Gm chords sound very much like ‘home’, suggesting a i > i > III > VII progression in the key of G minor.

2 Since we’re assuming we’re in the key of G minor, and all the chords are diatonic to (belong to) this key, it follows that any melody notes taken from the G minor scale should work over our chord progression. So that gives us a palette of G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb and F to choose our melody notes from, with G as our root note, or tonic.

3 We’ll build our first melodic building block by alternating between two notes, but which? We could choose any, but the fifth degree of the scale is known as the dominant, and has a strong feeling of wanting to resolve back to the tonic. So having this persist would prolong tension nicely for having our melody resolve back to the tonic at the end of the phrase.

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