Writing a song: Part II

Writing a song: Part II

Hello, everyone! Today’s article will expand on my previous entry, “Writing a Song: Part I”. If you haven’t read that, I strongly recommend checking it out as it has some valuable information that I think applies to composing in all styles.

Towards the end of the article, I mentioned the five tools you can use to take an idea to the next level:

  1. Repetition
  2. Variation
  3. Development
  4. Deviation
  5. Transposition

Today, I just want to talk about repetition, as each subject deserves its own spotlight. More after the jump!


If something is so darn catchy that it pretty much demands to be played again, you’ll instantly know you’re dealing with repetition. A great example is this excerpt from a song I’ve been writing called Kepler. It’s largely based on a C#m7add9 arpeggio (C# E G#B D#) and is based in 13/8. When I finished writing the first passage, it almost immediately occurred to me that it demanded a repetition. Not because I’m lazy (I can sometimes be that way), but because it sounded fucking wicked. So I followed my instinct and made it repeat twice.


Ex. 1. Kepler

Repetition is a very important tool for solidifying parts of an arrangement. It sets an audience’s expectations for a consistent motif. Setting up expectations is half of the game of composing and playing music. You can’t have a fully fleshed out song without some parts being fairly consistent, which is precisely why repetition is the first subject I’d like to talk to you about. There are two major, unwritten guidelines for getting the most out of repetition:

  1. If your ideas are important, give them enough time to develop and sink in.
  2. If your ideas are very important, don’t overcook them. Endless repetition can kill a great idea faster than a shady business executive.

With that in mind, you might be wondering how many repetitions you need before the idea is developed enough for you to move on. The answer is unfortunately complex: it depends. Some songs can repeat a riff or rhythmic idea for eight or nine minutes, while others might only have fifteen or twenty seconds baked in. The question you have to ask yourself when you’ve written a part is what’s going to go on top of it. Do you have a long bassline idea that spans several repetitions of the underlying phrase? Is there a melody, or countermelody that’s going to go over top? Is there enough rhythmic interest to keep your audience invested in the idea?

Some rules of thumb might help things along. The first piece of advice I can offer is that if the base idea is all you have, you might have anywhere from 2 to 4 instances of that phrase before you completely lose your audience’s interest. If you start layering other instruments on top of that phrase, you can get more mileage out of it, but you shouldn’t push it.

Here’s an example. If we’re looking at a rhythm guitar and a bass guitar arrangement, and “a” represents a bar-long phrase being played on the rhythm guitar, we end up with this mock arrangement diagram if that phrase is played four times in a row. In this example, the bass player is doing nothing.

rhy. git | a a a a

bass git | – – – –

By phrase #3, you might be thinking, “okay, where’s the guitarist going with this?”. Depending on your motives, this feeling of anxiety and unresolved tension might be exactly what you want (more on that in another article, possibly). But you want to establish rapport and trust with your audience, and it’s important to not give them too much time to chew on your ideas. So we’ve got two different options:

rhy. | a a a a

bass | – – b b


rhy. | a a a a a a a a

bass | – – b   b   b  

You’ll notice in the first option that each ‘b’ lasts just as long as each ‘a’, and that we introduce it after two instances of ‘a’. Not a bad choice if ‘a’ serves as an intro of sorts, and ‘b’ is used to ramp up interest and energy. After we reach the second ‘b’ though, we’ll have to think about introducing either a new layer or switching to new patterns entirely for either the guitar or the bass.

In the second option, we’re presented with a more interesting situation: 8 instances of ‘a’, and three instances of ‘b’ … but in this case, ‘b’‘s duration lasts for two instances of ‘a’. If we’re trying to go for a longer song that has fewer intrinsically different patterns and builds up interest through variation, this second option works fairly well. But it does have the problem of the first option, albeit on a different timescale … something eventually has to change or be added to hold the listener’s interest.

Well, that about just wraps up my section on Repetition! If you have any questions about this section, be sure to email me at hello@hoffy.rocks. If you’d like more tips on song-writing and would like to hear about new music that I have in the pipeline, please consider subscribing to my mailing list below!