Repetition (music)  

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Repetition is important in music, where sounds or sequences are often repeated. One often stated idea is that repetition should be in balance with the initial statements and variations in a piece. It may be called restatement, such as the restatement of a theme. While it plays a role in all music, in fact most musical sounds are periodic, it is especially prominent in specific styles. A literal repetition of a musical passage is often indicated by the use of a repeat sign, or the instructions da capo or dal segno.

Theodor Adorno criticized repetition and popular music as being psychotic and infantile. In contrast, Richard Middleton (1990) argues that "while repetition is a feature of all music, of any sort, a high level of repetition may be a specific mark of 'the popular'" and that this allows an, "enabling" of "an inclusive rather than exclusive audience" (p.139). "There is no universal norm or convention" for the amount or type of repetition, "all music contains repetition - but in differing amounts and of an enormous variety of types." This is influenced by "the political economy of production; the 'psychic economy' of individuals; the musico-technological media of production and reproduction (oral, written, electric); and the weight of the syntactic conventions of music-historical traditions" (ibid, p.268).

Thus Middleton (also 1999) distinguishes between discursive and musematic repetition. A museme is a minimal unit of meaning, analgous to morpheme in linguistics, and musematic repetition is "at the level of the short figure, often used to generate an entire structural framework." Discursive repetition is "at the level of the phrase or section, which generally functions as part of a larger-scale 'argument'." He gives "paradigmatic case[s]": the riff and the phrase. Musematic repetition includes circularity, synchronic relations, and open-ness. Discursive repetition includes linearity, rational control, and self-sufficiency. Discursive repetition is most often nested (hierarchically) in larger repetitions and may be thought of as sectional, while musematic repetition may be thought of as additive. (p.146-8) Put more simply, musematic repetition is simple repetition of precisely the same musical figure, such as a repeated chorus. Discursive repetition is, "both repetitive and non-repetitive," (Lott, p.174), such as the repetition of the same rhythmic figure with different notes.

At the tone level, repetition creates a drone.


Types of repetitive music

Repetitive music (Hurttt) has often been negatively linked with Freudian thanatos. Theodor Adorno (1948, p. 178) provides an example in his criticism of Igor Stravinsky, whose, "rhythmic procedures ostinato closely resemble the schema of catatonic conditions. In certain schizophrenics, the process by which the motor apparatus becomes independent leads to infinite repetition of gestures or words, following the decay of the ego." Similar criticism was levelled at Ravel's Bolero.

Wim Mertens (1980, p. 123-124) argues that "In repetitive music, repetition in the service of the death instinct prevails. Repetition is not repetition of identical elements, so it is not reproduction, but the repetition of the identical in another guise. In traditional music, repetition is a device for creating recognizability, reproduction for the sake of the representing ego. In repetitive music, repetition does not refer to eros and the ego, but to the libido and to the death instinct."

Repetitive music has also been linked with Lacanian jouissance. David Schawrz (1992, p. 134) argues that the repetition in John Adams's Nixon in China "trapping listeners in a narrow acoustic corridor of the Real" while Naomi Cumming (1997, p. 129-152) argues that the repetitive string ostinatos of Steve Reich's Different Trains are "prearticulate" pieces of the Real providing a refuge from the Holocaust and its "horror of identification."

Modern examples

Modern examples includes minimalist music, krautrock, disco (and its later derivatives such as house music), some techno, Igor Stravinsky's compositions, barococo, and the Suzuki method. (Fink 2005, p. 5)

Disco, House, and Rave music

DJs at disco clubs in the 1970s played "... a smooth mix of long single disco records to keep people “dancing all night long.” The twelve-inch single was popularised as a means to this end. While disco songs do have some repetitive elements, such as a persistent throbbing beat, these repetitive elements were counterbalanced by the musical variety provided by orchestral arrangements and disco mixes that added different sound textures to the music, ranging from a full, orchestral sound to stripped-down "break" sections.

The electronic dance music genres that followed disco in the 1980s and 1990s, such as house music and techno kept the bass drum rhythm introduced by disco but did not use the orchestral arrangements or horn sections. House and techno had a more minimalist sound that layered electronic sounds and samples over a drum machine drum part and a repetitive synth bass bassline.

In the 1990s, an offshoot of one form of house music (acid house) developed into rave music, a high-energy electronic music for dancing that depends heavily on samples. Initially "rave music" was considered a particular style that was a combination of fast breakbeat and more hardcore forms of techno. Rave music was played at massive dance parties ("raves") where many Ecstasy-fueled dancers would dance all night to the throbbing, repetitive beat of rave songs.

After some teens and young adults were injured in raves (either from drug overdoses or dehydration), the UK government introduced its Criminal Justice Bill of 1994. This was government attempt to ban large rave-style dance events featuring music with "repetitive beats" (e.g., rave music, house music, techno, etc) which were associated with illegal drug use. Although the bill did become law in November 1994, it had little effect, and rave music events continued in underground, illegal settings, such as empty warehouses or factories.


  • Adorno, Theodor (1948). The Philosophy of Modern Music. Trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (1973). Cited in Fink 2005.
  • Cumming, Naomi (1997). "The Horrors of Identification: Reich's Different Trains" Perspectives of New Music 35, no. I (winter).
  • Fink, Robert (2005). Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. ISBN 0-520-24550-4.
  • Mertens, Wim (1980/1983/1988). American Minimal Music, trans. J. Hautekiet. ISBN 0-912483-15-6. Cited in Fink 2005.
  • Schwarz, David (1992). "Postmodernism, the Subject, and the Real in John Adams's Nixon in China" Indiana Theory Review 13, no. 2 (fall). Cited in Fink 2005.

Further reading

See also

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