The fact is, the vast majority of composers in the history of the world have not repeated everything in their music literally. That only happens in strict strophic forms (on the formal level), early Minimalism (on the local level), and a few other oddball pieces.
Usually composers repeat elements with some variation.1 Depending on the degree, ordering, and context of these variations, an idea can be easier or harder to follow:
- Some variations (by which I mean “reiterations” or “varied repetitions,” however you want to think of it) are more felt than heard. The inner voices of a Bach fugue are a good example. They’re constructed from the same motives as the outer voices, but these inner voices take practice to perceive.
- Some composers seek to blur the formal boundaries between elements. Become Ocean by John Luther Adams is a good example. It’s clear the piece has different parts and that material repeats, but at first listen, the divisions don’t have firm boundaries.
- Other composers try to obscure certain repetitions. Schoenberg’s 12-tone method aimed to negate the traditional tonal functions of the 12 pitches.2 At the same time, he was very deliberate about ensuring motivic repetition, directing purposeful voice leading and drawing out certain harmonic colors. These repetitions are hard to hear in Schoenberg’s music because they’re so intricate. In a piece like Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations, they’re more audible to my ears.
- Finally there are some composers who purposefully make any patterns inaudible. The repetitions in Stockhausen wrote in Kontra-Punkte have nothing to do with anything you can perceive (which puts the “punked” in Kontra-Punkte), although the result is nonetheless a certain kind of lovely.
Listeners Want More Than Mere Repetition
It should go without saying that different audiences have varying tolerances for the amount, nature and usage of variations. Both extremes of variation in repetition — incessant, literal repetition and entirely obscured repetition — are difficult to pull off. They get really tiresome really fast.
Thus, the art of composition usually involves figuring out how give your listeners enough repetition so they can enjoy the payoff of noticing the changes, but not so much repetition that they get bored.3 Whatever the level of repetition, its essential quality is surprise — the novel juxtaposition of two elements because of their commonality.4
Although literal repetitions help you get your bearings, there’s usually nothing surprising about them. Delight comes when composers repeat elements of a gesture or phrase, but not all of them. Thus, the most important question a composer can ask is not if something repeats, but what about it repeats and when.
- I’d speculate these variations are more often to texture than to the melody or foreground element. ↩
- More specifically, he wanted to ensure that the music wasn’t built from tonic-dominant relationships yet still have an underlying consistency. You can find passages where he uses traditional tonal materials, albeit in a non-traditional context: for instance, these diatonic clarinet and oboe solos in the Piano Concerto. ↩
- Conversely, you want to ensure there’s enough literal or near-literal repetition that they don’t get confused and irritated. ↩
- Adam Bradley says this about word rhymes in his Book of Rhymes, but the point is true for repetition in music as well. ↩