You know when you are hanging out at a bar with some friends, and then all the sudden a song starts to play that somehow brings everyone in the building together, singing and shouting along to the lyrics? Are you one of the carefree people singing along? Or are you the person sitting and thinking to yourself "how do I write music that makes people do this?"
A great trick to writing lyrics that people will remember is to implement rhythmic repetition. There are many cases in other forms of writing where repetition is to be avoided. Lyric writing is quite opposite. Developing patterns within your music is what is going to make it catchy and memorable.
So how exactly does one incorporate repetition into their writing? It's more than just simply saying the same thing over and over again (unless that is all you want it to be). There are tips and tricks you can use to make your repetitions interesting and build that much needed tension within you music. To get good at this you need to train your ear and begin noticing these patterns in other music you listen to.
There are many beginner lyricists that go into their writing thinking these things should just come naturally. In reality, however, this is a skill that needs to be practiced and perfected (just like everything else in music).
Continue reading this article for useful composition advice that will quickly work to better your writing.
Phrases With Parallel Structure
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.
A Surprise Ending
Now lets take a look at an excerpt from "The Memory Remains" by Metallica:
Ahh 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.
Building On Your Repeats
Another cool thing you can do with your writing is to continuously build on your repeats in interesting ways as REM does in the 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
We see here the pattern goes "I'm VERB-ING SOMETHING". In the beginning lines, that "something" is explained by a single word. As the verse goes on, they go into to greater detail. This gives a natural escalation to the music and can be described as an "Expanding Isocolon".
While the growing repetition is a great and useful technique, you will rarely find a shrinking repetition being used (lines getting smaller and smaller). At least, I have never noticed before. Please feel free to prove me wrong in the comments if you find examples!
Getting An Ear For Repetition
A great way to start developing your repetitious instincts is to complete the following easy task: for each of the new repetition techniques you learned in this article, see if you can find your own examples that go along with them. Once you do, share it with the rest of us in the comments.
After you find your own examples, you will start to naturally pick it out when it occurs in other music you listen to. You will also find yourself using it in your own writing... probably without even noticing!
About the Author
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and composer with a passion for teaching songwriting