In some ways, repetition is the easiest aspect of form to listen for and is fairly intuitive. This is especially true since right now we’re focused on exact repetition. Just listen for something that’s the same!

And yet, repetition doesn’t always leap out at us when we’re listening. One study found that on an initial listen, many of us are great at hearing really short, quick repetition (say, two notes that instantly repeat) but not at hearing larger-scale repetition (say, of an entire section). As we listen to the same music more and more times, we get better and better at hearing larger-scale repetition—and, surprisingly, worse at hearing the short, quick repetition! This suggests that as we get used to a song, we start grouping it into larger chunks.

We’ll focus here on the repetition of larger segments, specifically in melodies. As a rule of thumb, we’ll consider something important to note if it involves a repeated unit that lasts at least 5 seconds. This makes the task a little more manageable than if we focused on absolutely every little repetition, while still keeping us focused on the bigger picture, which often gets lost as we get buried in details when we’re doing other aural skills tasks.

Remember the study mentioned above: on a first hearing, you’re likely to focus most of all on little details. How can we move quickly to hearing the larger-scale? This is basically a challenge of attention. As you listen, try to pay attention to groups of notes—even full themes—rather than individual notes. And don’t stress over perfect accuracy right now. Depending on your experiences and ways of processing music, you might not be totally sure (for example) whether something is repeating in the same key or a new key, and that’s ok. We’re just trying to build habits of listening that we could follow up in more detail if needed, not aiming to produce an exact score based on one hearing.

Your instructor may give you guidance on exactly how to convey what you hear. Here are a few options:

  • You might convey your hearing through prose. Depending on whether you have access to timings in the recording, this might be very specific (“I heard a section from 0:58–1:05 that repeated at 1:30–1:38”) or more general (“I heard a section, maybe two phrases, near the middle that repeated at the end”).
  • You might instead use a form diagram. Form diagrams often represent phrases with slurs, lines, or brackets, and use color-coding or letter names to indicate repetition (with anything labeled “a,” for example, indicating the same music). Your instructor will indicate whether you need to mark all phrases or just stuff that repeats.
  • You might use the Variations Audio Timeliner tool. Instructions can be found on the app’s website.

Activity: Identify repetition

Goal: Develop a sensitivity to repetition when listening, and strengthen the general habit of paying attention to form

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. Optionally, you may wish to write down the exact timings of the themes.


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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