Monday, August 5, 2013

Lyrical repetition in song

Sometimes, critics make fun of songs because of how repetitive the lyrics are. For example:

Baby, baby, baby, oh!
Baby, baby, baby, oh!

Yes, inane lyrics exist, but the truth is that these lyrics are not as repetitive as they look like on paper, because the music changes when the words repeat. And changing the music alters (slightly, in this case) the meaning of the text. By just changing the music on the repetition of a lyric, you can add meaning to the text, alter the text's significance, or even completely change the text's meaning. 

Example 1

Let's try one example. Consider this chorus:

She's got a ticket to ride
She's got a ticket to ri-i-ide,
She's got a ticket to ride,
And she don't care.

Looks pretty repetitive, doesn't it? Well, it's the chorus of a song, and the (text+music) is meant to stick in someone's head. To stick effectively, we need to hear it several times. But as listeners, we don't want to hear the same thing exactly. In this case, the melody of the first three phrases begins the same (although the harmony differs), but is different at the end of the phrase. What does that do? Well, first, it emphasizes this phrase. Second, it lets the listener ponder on the meaning of the words—if we hear it three times, it must be important. Third, it gives the resolution ("and she don't care") more punch because we had to wait so long for it. And fourth, the melodies of the three repeated phrases sound progressively more frantic and worried. If I were to try that using only text, it might look like: "She's got a ticket to ride, oh no, she's ready to go away from here, she's on her way out the door RIGHT NOW—because she doesn't care about me anymore." As you can see, the point is made more effectively—and memorably—using music.

Example 2

The pattern of repeating phrases in "Ticket to Ride" is very similar to another common music/lyrical repetition convention: in most blues music, the first lyrical phrase almost always repeats. The second time around, though, the melody and the chords are different under the same words, creating a strong emotional reinforcement and giving the third phrase (the response to the previous lyrics) more weight. It's kind of like waiting for the punch line of a knock-knock joke.

Here's an example:

You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snoopin' 'round my door,
You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snoopin' 'round my door,
You can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more

"Hound Dog" (1953), by Leiber and Stoller, sung by Willae Mae "Big Mama" Thornton 

Anyway, my point is, I don't think repetition of lyrics should be an immediate indication of bad song writing. Music and lyrics should be considered as a unit. Now, over-repetition of music? That's another thing. For another post.

Vocab: lyrics, phrase, melody, blues

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