Modified Repetition

Perhaps the most obvious way to negotiate the play of repetition and contrast is to incorporate repetition with modifications. These modifications, which might be small or very large, might include changes in:

  • rhythmic values
  • metric placement
  • individual pitches/intervals
  • level of transposition
  • key
  • harmony
  • timbre/instrumentation
  • complete rewriting of portions of a melody

Such changes are common between phrases, but also between larger repeated/altered sections (verses in popular songs, choruses in popular songs, variations, outer sections of ternary forms, etc.). As a result, with longer pieces, you may need to create more than one “level” of analysis. Most often, two work well to represent a piece: one tracking phrases to show how they are repeated (and altered) within sections, and the other showing how larger sections are repeated (and altered).

As we get into formal listening, especially if you have some knowledge of the terms associated with a style, you might be tempted to label sections with jargon like “exposition,” “binary form,” and “pre-chorus.” In order to be as style-neutral as possible, and to make sure our attention is focused primarily on modified repetition, we urge you instead to use descriptive language. For example, instead of “second verse,” you might instead say, “repetition of the melody and chords of opening section, but words are different and there is an added high-register synth pad.” This is a little unwieldy, but much more detailed.

Activity: Identify altered repetition

Goal: Develop a more detailed sensitivity to repetition

Before you start: You’ll need some way to convey what you hear. This might be writing it down, drawing a form diagram, or simply discussing it with someone else.

Instructions: Play a song from the playlist below. Listen to each melodic theme as it occurs, and try to identify when these themes repeat. Many of these repetitions will have small or large changes; try to describe what is different each time. You are encouraged to note the exact timings of the themes and to write down any alterations you hear.


Suggest a song for this playlist!


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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