Remember the old dictum, “Variety is the spice of life?” If it’s so, how have we come to be so tolerant of so much mind-numbing repetition? A few days ago, I channel-surfed my way onto a chase scene from one of last year’s “major motion pictures,” one whose budget looked (and should have sounded) like the real deal. To my dismay, the entire scene was scored with a cello section playing seemingly endless exact repetitions of a one-measure sixteenth-note ostinato, with percussion hits to punch some of the onscreen action. (“Look, ma! No development!”)
Remember the song “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve? A huge hit, with an even bigger afterlife for its violin “hook“ which has become a staple as bumper music in radio, television, and jingles. The entire song consisted of a two-bar chord progression which got repeated, sometimes with and sometimes without, its violin theme, forty-nine times without variation.. Hip-hop and other dance music is littered with “songs” that have two- or four-bar phrases, kick-drum rhythms, progressions, etc., which are vamped literally from one end of the song to the other.
Now I know that sequencers and loop-based production practically beg the artist to shortchange the “polishing” phase of composition. Small wonder so many music-makers have become so seduced by the quantity they can crank out (and the speed with which they can do it) that they’ve lost focus on true quality. It’s as if they’ve become, to steal a line from “Jurassic Park,” “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Here’s the rub: Initially, vamp-like repetition seizes the ear’s attention as it anticipates the inevitable left turn into new material. When it fails to come, the listener’s attention starts to wander, and you’ve just lost your key advantage. Plus, as I listened to that chase scene, I began to agonize for the players who had to endure recording it. Wandering attention affects them, too, and there is nothing like the terror of suddenly realizing you may be unsure of which repetition you are on, or of having to play something with perfect repetition 28 times.
So how best to cope with the forces which conspire, innocently or not, to get you to “send in the clones?” Yes, I can hear it already, these examples are all from hugely successful projects, and who am I to judge? Actually, the second-guessing I bring to bear is an internal one which I hope to encourage in you, for in that continually-varying chasm between the almighty dollar and true satisfaction with your writing, isn’t the latter ultimately more important?
Consider your audience. Whether conscious of it or not, variety, development, and richness (not merely wallpapering with sound) will draw them into your music and hence the story your are supporting. Eventually, the industry will notice that your scores are just more interesting. Even your players will certainly appreciate the richness of your cues by giving them greater attention and effort when performing and recording them, a little-discussed but distinct advantage.
So set a new ethic for yourself. Get in the habit of noticing all the variety and richness in the scores of others as ends in themselves. If you are an orchestrator, even when given a midi file or sketch which seems to mandate static repetition, bust your hump (following a discrete discussion with your employer) to find ways to introduce some variety and direction to it through systematic addition or substitution of instrumental colors, textures, or even tonalities. They don’t have to be big or obvious; in fact, subtlety works better (and shows you as a class act.) For instance, that cello figure mentioned above could have used occasional punctuation (or even total substitution) by another section (low brass, for instance.)
If you are the composer, your options and artistic responsibility to both your director and audience are greater. Make it your mission in life to give them more than they seem to have gotten in the habit of receiving.
The lesson here is that meaningless repetition is the lazy way out. Variety is your friend. Embrace it. Invite it into every project you accept. Further, don’t treat your players as machines; don’t even treat your machines as machines. Unless, of course, your audience actually becomes a bunch of machines, or something like them…