Music Theory
Acoustic Composition
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Quantifying a “good” melody – Phrase Repetition

Repetition of Phrases

Another important feature of memorable melodies is phrase repetition, or the repetition of groups of notes. Phrase repetition makes a melody predictable on the first listen and can also be used to surprise the listen when properly utilized.

Let’s see if there’s any phrase repetition in Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve Seen:

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The first trick to identifying phrase repetition is looking for similar groups of notes or intervals. It’s important to keep intervals in mind because composers will occasionally repeat phrases starting on a different note (this is commonly called transposition).

Upon a cursory glance, we see that the first measure is repeated verbatim in measure 5 and there’s a partial repetition of the first measure in measure 3. While it might seem natural to say that this melody is made of 4 phrases of 2 measures, I would argue that it’s really 2 phrases of 4 measures. Without doubt this could lead to a fruitful discussion on form, but that’s beyond the scope of this lesson. For now it is sufficient to say that the note group C#5, E4, F#4, A4 repeats 3 times (everyone other measure).

Now let’s look at our melody without repetition:

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We’ve already stated that there’s no note repetition in this excerpt, but let’s look at interval and phrase repetition.

  • 1 Diminished Unison = 3%
  • 2 Augmented Unison =7%
  • 5 Minor 2nd = 17%
  • 15 Major 2nd = 52%
  • 2 Minor 3rd = 7%
  • 2 Major 3rd = 7%
  • 1 Minor 6th = 3%
  • 1 Diminished Octave = 3%

We can conclude that this melody has a high amount of interval repetition. Especially where Major 2nds and Minor 2nds are concerned. Now let’s look at phrase repetition:

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At first glance there’s no obvious candidates for repeated note groups, however, let’s consider measures 1-2 and 5-6. Measure 1 begins on a C4 and ascends to A4 and Measure 2 begins on a C#5 and descends to D#4, in contrast, Measure 5 begins on F5 and ascends to a C6 and Measure 6 begins on C#6 and descends to F#5 before leaping to D6.

Obviously these are not repetitions in the strict sense of the word. Yet, when we listen to the excerpt we notice that they do in fact share some similarity. In all things music always trust your ear before your eye. The last concept we’ll be discussing is that of Contour.

In music, contour is understood to be the “shape” of a melodic line. In other words, it’s the word used to describe how the notes rise and fall. Measures 1-2 have a contour that rises for a measure followed by measure long fall. The same is true in measures 5-6 (excluding the final note of measure 6). We can see further similarities in measure 3 and measure 7. Measure 3 contains an ascending leap of a diminished octave while measure 7 contains a rather large leap of a descending major 17th. These can be seen as complimentary of each other and often composers will use opposites to expand a melodic motif or phrase.