The Irritation Of Reiteration

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…


  • August 13, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    Excellent article – the sequel to “The New Editors: When Composers Stop Composing”.

  • August 13, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Absolutely fantastic – just the kind of thing we need to keep at the top of our mind. A lot of creatives have a very defeatist attitude when it comes to the commerce of art, and there exists the idea that only one can prevail. Yes, sometimes deadline crunches make some levels of expression a luxury, but if we change our general attitudes, we can still achieve a lot while not contributing to more musical ‘wallpaper’ as Ron aptly calls it.

  • August 13, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    Here, here!

    I hate to sound like an old fogie here, but they ‘just don’t seem to write ’em like they used to!’ I do truly wish that some of today’s composers were more interested in writing interesting music to compliment the vision, rather than just cranking out cues that seem to be the same as every other one of the same style.

    My two cents.


  • August 14, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    And not to mention that at a recording session, the string players arms get very tired repeating those staccato ostinati for 3 minutes at a stretch over multiple takes.

    They don’t like it and then won’t give you 100%.

    Andrew: I agree with you completely. As a composer, I look to the golden age composers as a yard stick. It is that kind of craft I wish to have.



  • August 14, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    As an orchestral player myself, I have experienced considerable tedium in playing even some of the great works. Beethoven’s celli lines in particular I found often very unexciting. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze used to make me want to take my cello out and smash it to pieces. Since my youth, I’ve always tried to ensure that every line for every instrument in my orchestra has something interesting to do. But the intricacy of an ensemble can also compensate even where the individual lines are in themselves uneventful or repetitive in a minimalist way. Let’s face it though, the real corruption of the ear is through the proliferation of music as a disposable background score to people’s lives and when the likes of Simon Cowell are rewarded for bringing a McDonald Brother’s approach to music production.

  • August 15, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Wonderful article! I’m a string player who has on more than one occasion had that fear of losing my place in a section with 50-something measures of repeated motives (Mars, anyone?). When my composer friends are gracious enough to let me glimpse at their unfinished works I always make sure to point out any repetitious sections. I remind them that not only could you lose the listener; you might also lose a few players as their fingers give out!

  • September 10, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    What great thoughts! Film Music Magazine, thanks so much for holding a high standard in reporting industry news as well as bringing such powerful narratives as this article to the readers. Bravo!

    Mr. Hess, it was an honor to have you share your thoughts and expertise.

  • September 11, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

    Excellent article!

    I get tired of hearing mindless repetition, or perhaps not even mindless… I think that a lot of people are starting to consider it to be good quality writing, maybe thinking that it’s just background music and no one really listens to it anyways.

    Then again, on the subject of “the good old days”, not that I was around at the time, but it seems like perhaps the business has just gotten too fast-paced. Is it possible that maybe composers today just don’t have nearly the same amount of time that they did in the past, and so they resort to using excessive repetition to keep on schedule?

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