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How can I make repetition more interesting?

Believe it or not, this is a question composers and performers have asked themselves for centuries. In the world of baroque music, a common answer was to add melodic ornamentation and improvisation. This was most obvious in the Da Capo Aria.

Da Capo Aria |A|B|A|

When performing this ternary form, vocalists would usually sing the first two sections as written and then, on the repeat of the A section, would improvise stylish ornamentations. Singers, renown for their improvisational ability and vocal prowess, would often use this musical form as a platform to showcase virtuosic technique.

Centuries later, the idea of adding interest to a repeated section by improvising would become a basic tenet of jazz.

What if I don’t want my musicians to improvise?

That’s a fair question and one that composers eventually asked after the vocal showcases of the Da Capo Aria got out of hand. Composers like Christoph Willibald Gluck sought to have performers only sing the written notes in his operas so that everyone could understand the words. Instead of the musicians improvising, it becomes the composer/arranger’s responsibility to keep the music interesting despite repetitions.

Let’s take another look at that non-repetitive melody from earlier

By adding some embellishments we can transform the melody while still maintaining it’s original character and sound.

Here’s what both examples sound like back to back.

An easy way to add embellishments is to make diatonic connections between the notes of the original melody. You can see this in the above example between the C on beat 1 of the first measure and G on beat 3 of the same measure, as well as the notes between the G on beat 4 of measure 1 and the F on beat 1 of measure 2.

Transposing the melody is another great trick

Here’s the same melody transposed up a perfect fourth to the key of F major
This is the original melody followed by the transposed melody
Now the melody is in the relative minor of the original. We transposed down a third diatonically in the C major scale.
Here’s the original followed by the relative minor transposition

Other things to try

  • Rhythmic alterations – if the source material has predictable rhythms adding in syncopation is a great way to create variety
  • Accompaniment alterations – sometimes its more than enough to simply alter the accompaniment pattern.
  • Texture alterations – we’ll talk more about this soon, but turning a homophonic passage into a polyphonic passage is a time honored tradition among composers.