There’s a great scene in the sci-fi comedy series Rick and Morty, whereby Morty’s hapless father Jerry is accidentally abducted by aliens and placed in an extremely low-fi simulation, à la The Matrix on a high-school production budget. Oblivious, Jerry utterly fails to notice he’s in a poorly constructed faux-Earth, despite the fact that, for example, the world is suddenly almost entirely populated by identical carbon copies of the same three people. Anyway, Jerry is fake driving himself to fake work and flicks on the fake radio. The aliens, unable to simulate actual terrestrial radio, make it up on the fly and announce that coming up next on “Earth Radio” is “human music.”
What follows is basically: “boop beep boop… boop beep boop… boop beep boop…” Hilarious!
At the risk of totally nerdifying this joke, one of the reasons it’s funny is because this is the absolute bare minimum of effort required to make music. Yet even though it’s so basic, we still legitimately recognize it as music because of one simple feature: repetition.
Natural sounds don’t repeat themselves the way music does. Repetition is for the most part a human construct and is one of the most basic characteristics that helps us tell the difference between music and not-music. Think about a toddler bashing away at a piano. We don’t confuse that with music because unless the kid gets lucky or is a prodigy, they’re probably not going to be making any repeated patterns — just a random, erratic bunch of sounds that happen to be pitched.
Until the 20th century came around, tasteful repetition was just a given in music. A composer would create a motif, essentially copy and paste it half a dozen times in various transpositions, pretty it up with some orchestration and then call it a day. But during the 20th century, composers started messing with all kinds of basic assumptions about what music needs to be, and repetition was definitely one of those assumptions.
And speaking of which, if you’re interested in learning more about those elements that are crucial to composition in any form, definitely check out Soundfly’s beginner-level online course on the fundamentals of composing. For now, let’s talk about the Serialists…
Serialists mess things up…
You may have heard of Arnold Schoenberg and the Serialists. This may sound like the name of your roommate’s ironic synthwave band that you totally promised you’d come see perform at the local dive bar, but Schoenberg gained notoriety for creating a radical system of composition called “Serialism,” or “12-tone music,” where each of the twelve chromatic pitches used in Western music (A, A#, B, C, etc.) were given equal weight in a piece.
This was breaking from a rather basic convention in Western music in which scales and modalities dictated which notes were of greater importance — the tonic, the fifth, and all the remaining pitches being slotted into a hierarchy of contextual usefulness.
The aural result of Serialist music was (and even today still can be) a little alien sounding, as we’re unable to rely on basic conventions of harmony and diatonicism to understand the musical narrative. But even still, Schoenberg and other serial composers’ works are not completely alien because they still used repetition in their work.
This is the first movement of a work by Schoenberg called “Pierrot Lunaire” — if you’ve never heard it, it can sound, well… weird. But it is definitely music because there are distinctly repeated motifs and patterns in there. It’s worth a listen.
Total Serialists mess things up totally.
Perhaps that’s where things would have ended had World War II not come along and pissed everyone off. Because after WWII, artists of all stripes were determined to create a brave new world from the ashes of the old, and amongst them was a French composer named Pierre Boulez. Boulez and his best mate Karlheinz Stockhausen (who, according to his birth certificate was born in Germany but later in life declared he was actually from the Andromeda Galaxy) were massive proponents of what came to be known as Total Serialism.
Boulez felt that Serialism was an extremely important evolution in Western music, but that Schoenberg and the other serialists didn’t go far enough. Not content with serializing just pitch, they created systems where literally any aspect of a composition — rhythm, register, accents, dynamics, timbre, etc. — were put into a bunch of matrices to strictly determine each and every note the composer wrote down.
The idea was that the composer’s “ego” wouldn’t get in the way of the way of the composition, and instead what would be produced was pure music, unadulterated by the frailties and emotions of the human condition. But one of the basic musical concepts that ended up out the window as a part of this system was repetition, and the results remain polarizing to this day.
Here is a piece for two pianos by Boulez called “Structures.” Listen to as much or as little as you like, because you’ll get the idea in the first sixty seconds. There is no repetition. None. Zilch.
And I hate to say it, but this piece is almost universally reviled upon a first listen by pretty much everyone. I’ve been to a concert where this piece was performed. It was in Australia’s National Art Gallery. It felt very cultured and I’m glad for the experience. But I’ve come to the conclusion that one live performance of “Structures” per lifetime is enough, and I don’t need to do that ever again.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “György Ligeti’s ‘Musica Ricercata’: Is It Possible to Compose with Just One Note?”
Minimalists to the rescue? Sort of?
After a rocking fifteen to twenty years where everyone who wanted to work in contemporary art music had to compose using Total Serialism (or else some other avant-garde system where things as gauche as a major triad were verboten), the pendulum swung back, and it swung back hard. Minimalism can be viewed as a direct reaction against Total Serialism, and it’s not difficult to see why. Aside from once more wholeheartedly embracing conventional ideas of harmony, melody, and other nice things, repetition came screaming back into fashion.
There’s a number of very significant Minimalist composers — each with their own take on the genre — but arguably Steve Reich is the giant. Reich really explored what repetition in music could mean, and a piece that vividly illustrates this is “Piano Phase.”
“Piano Phase” has two pianists playing essentially the exact same short motif, over and over, at the same time, except one of them plays ever so slightly faster than the other, so gradually over time they shift out of phase with each other, until suddenly they both lock in time again, with one performer playing the motif one note ahead of the other, then two notes ahead, then three notes and so on, with each combination sounding distinctly different.
But that’s about it, because the piece is very, very repetitive. Some people find it beautiful, some people find it boring.
Finding the sweet spot.
These pieces were written a lifetime ago, but we can still look to them for guidance when considering how to use repetition in our own music. Our brains are basically hardwired to look for patterns. It’s an evolutionary thing. Patterns help us notice what time of day the lions drank from the waterhole, or what time of year the fruit grew on the trees, and whenever we notice a pattern our brains reward us with a little joyful drip of serotonin.
When we listen to a new piece of music, our brains are actively seeking that repetition. If a piece is too repetitive, we notice the patterns too quickly and get bored and switch off. Conversely, if a piece isn’t repetitive enough, our brains can’t find enough patterns to keep us interested, so we get bored and switch off.
This of course is entirely subjective, depending on a zillion different factors like cultural upbringing, our musical tastes, how much attention we can be bothered to give a piece of music on that particular day, but in any case one of the core factors as to whether or not our audience will like our music is how effectively we use repetition.
Think of it like this: the amount of repetition in any piece could be placed on a spectrum. At one end the piece is entirely repeated and therefore predictable, and at the other end there is no repetition. At the extreme of either end, you run the risk of boring your audience. That is not to say of course that you shouldn’t experiment with repetition at either extreme; once again, it’s a matter of personal taste as to how much repetition is a good thing, and a number one rule of composing or songwriting is that if you like it, someone else will too.
But in my experience, a satisfying song or composition manages to nicely balance predictability and unpredictability.
What is that balance?
Well, that’s entirely up to you and your judgement. But if you’re listening back to your piece and you start to get bored, then that’s a pretty good sign there’s too much repetition and you need to find ways to mix things up. Similarly if you’re listening back to your piece and even you have a hard time tracking what’s going on, perhaps there’s not enough repetition.
So, to conclude, the entirety of Western music can be considered somewhere between a child smashing away a toy piano and “boop beep boop… boop beep boop…” Who needs a fancy degree to write a tune?
Continue learning about music theory, composition, arrangement, harmony and chord progressions with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses, like Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, Orchestration for Strings, and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony. Subscribe for unlimited access here.