If we were collaborating on a song and I suggested that one particular line of lyric – and the melody that accompanies it – be repeated eighteen times, would you think that would be entirely too repetitive to be successful? How about if, in the same song, I insisted that an additional phrase be repeated twenty-six times? Would that seem crazy? How repetitious is too repetitious for your songs?
In the mega-smash hit “Uptown Funk” (written by Mark Ronson, Jeffrey Bhasker, Devon Gallaspy, Lonnie Simmons, Rudolph Taylor, Nicholaus Joseph Williams, Charlie Wilson, Robert Wilson, Ronnie Wilson, Philip Lawrence II, and Bruno Mars, and recorded by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars) the phrase “Don’t believe me just watch” is repeated 18 times, while “uptown funk gon’ give it to you” is heard 26 times. Similarly, in Bill Withers’ self-penned classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” the words “I know” (and the melody that accompanies it) is heard twenty-six times.
According to David Penn, founder of Hit Songs Deconstructed, in Camila Cabello’s breakthrough hit “Havana” (featuring Young Thug, and written by Cabello, Louis Bell, Adam Feeney, Kaan Gunesberk, Brittany Hazzard, Brian Lee, Ali Tamposi, Jeffery Williams, Pharrell Williams, and Andrew Wotman), Cabello sings the nonsense syllables “oo-na-na” seventy-five times.
In the field of advertising, it is widely accepted that the more times we are exposed to an ad—whether it is on television, radio, online, or in print—the more likely we are to remember it and be affected by it. While there is no specific number of exposures that guarantees a message will be retained, a study from Microsoft concluded that for retention of audio messages, hearing the message six to twenty times was optimal. This same principle applies to music and lyrics, and a look at today’s hits reveals that melodic, rhythmic, and lyric repetition is found in virtually all of them.
In my songwriting classes I sometimes tell my students, “If you want to make a melody or lyric stick in your listeners’ brains, repetition is the key.” I repeat that phrase three times then ask the attendees to repeat what I just said. Then I ask them to repeat the sentence I shared just before stating, “If you want to make a melody or lyric stick in your listeners’ brains, repetition is the key.” Inevitably, no one can remember the phrase they heard only one time, but the phrase they heard four times remains seared in their brains. It works the same way with melodies and rhythms.
Some people are afraid their melodies will be too simplistic; too repetitious—but an analysis of many of today’s top hits reveals that melodic repetition is the norm. Listen to your favorite current songs and you’ll likely hear rhythms and melodies repeated over and over within each section. Simplicity can be your friend. I’m not trying to be Tchaikovsky, I want to write melodies that children, listeners of any age, and non-singers can sing along with—melodies that insinuate themselves into listeners’ brains and stay there.
Try being “too repetitious.” You can always scale it back—and it just might be the ticket to a hit.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, and has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, and the New York Times. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.