Repetition in Pop Music, Classical Music, and Poetry


Have you ever thought about how much repetition there is in music, whether popular or classical? It’s so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget about how weird it actually is. If you were reading a book and the exact same chapter was repeated you’d probably be scratching your head and wondering if you had a messed up copy. But in music, that’s the norm! So today’s post addresses how we might think about musical repetition from its similarities to literary repetition (because while entire chapters might not be repeated in books there is a significant amount of repetition in some literature like poetry). Let’s just talk about one form of repetition right now, but there are a ton of others:


“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

-“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
by Dylan Thomas 

Refrains can be literary; the poem above is a great (and one of my favorite) examples of that! Refrains are everywhere in pop music, too—you know, that catchy part of the song that comes back many times after being interspersed with verses? Refrains can happen in classical music, though, too.

When a particular theme of classical music comes back after some different section, then, we can think about it as a refrain. What difference does that make, you might ask? Well, think about what the purpose of a refrain is in pop music and/or poetry: the refrain gains prestige as the most important point of the song, the point the singer/author is most obsessed with, if you will.

So if you hear a particular musical passage that comes back over and over again in between other contrasting music, the composer is telling you that it’s important.

So how do we connect this back to literature?

1) Well, like the Thomas poem, the repeated music might invoke a sense of an inescapable, death-defying desire (a desire that may or may not be fulfilled by the end of the piece).

2) Like pop music, a classical musical refrain might signify a self-directed statement or reminder (“let it go, let it go / can’t hold it back anymore” -you know what this is from)

3) Or a declarative, non-negotiable statement (“but I’ve got a blank space baby / and I’ll write your name” -Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”)

4) It could be purposefully humorous; the more repetitions of one thing, the more ridiculous and over-the-top it may seem (“got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane” -still Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”)

5) Side-stepping for a moment, the verses may provide new information or a twist with which to interpret the refrain (“But rumour has it I’m the one you’re leaving her for…But rumour has it he’s the one I’m leaving you for” -Adele, “Rumour Has It”). Obviously you won’t be told what the twist is in words for instrumental classical music, but that’s where your imagination comes in!!

Refrain Example:

(Rondos are a good example of a sort of refrain happening in classical music.)

So what do you think about the similarities and differences of refrains in classical music, pop music, and even poetry? Let me know in the comments!

You might also like: The “Fairy Tale” Genre in Music

40 thoughts on “Repetition in Pop Music, Classical Music, and Poetry”

      1. Found this from my debut collection:


        Hanging on the telephone
        in a hazy funk.
        Ice in a glass.
        The words
        shape-shifting silver bream,
        catching the light.

        The ice shifts,
        tying me down,
        caught on a line
        encumbered, turbid.
        Tasting Berlin: Berlin,
        hanging on the telephone
        in a hazy funk

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I really like this poem! Do you mind saying what your thought process behind the refrain was, then? Was it anything like what I suggest in this post? Out of curiosity. 🙂


      3. The poem opens with the description of what I was doing at the time-trying to reach a friend in Germany, late on a Saturday night when I’d had a few drinks. I never got anywhere with the call-in a time before mobiles, and at the end of the poem I guess I used it as a reminder of what I was doing,still doing. It worked like bookends, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. No More

        No more. No more bleaching white
        the nicotine stained flesh
        of your fingers,
        picking at the sterile
        veneer of cordiality
        amidst the well-thumbed
        scattered deserts
        from which ruins strive to rise.

        No more counting down the markers,
        elbows jostling territorially,
        courting, sequential swans
        rising in toasts, triumphant.
        Your slow, inexorable withdrawal
        left behind a vacuum,
        the equilibrium of a table
        out of kilter.

        No longer the trumpeted parading
        of the heir apparent,
        the tedious repetition
        of vine and tongue,
        reproduced seasoned lines
        framing the true inheritance
        and held to likeness.
        Casual comparity no more. No more.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Haha yeah, once you start to notice something it’s hard to stop! I really like that poem, too. You really have a knack with words. Thanks for sharing them with me and whoever else reads them here!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I discovered your blog today by coincidence! I am a music therapist working and studying for my PhD in music therapy and adoption. Im really interested on the necessity of repetition, and how this can help to create new neural pathways…thanks for this blog which has got me thinking. Joy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so interesting!! I’m a current PhD student in music theory and cognition, myself. But I’m also interested in the therapy side of things so that’s super interesting. I’m glad this sparked some ideas and thanks so much for commenting! Good luck with your research! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Mema in Wonderland
  3. I think you may be on to something here. Your post also made me thinking about the repetitive themes in literature. Some authors will use some of the same themes but they still are effective. I’m mainly thinking about Nicholas Sparks. I think he’s an amazing writer, but his themes are repetitive. The way you described themes in literature though makes sense. That kind of repetition can be very effective I think in driving a point home and like you said it’s obviously very important and something that the writer wants us to focus on like the Thomas poem you highlighted. Great analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That’s a great point about Nicholas Sparks and a lot of other authors. I’ve noticed it in TV shows, too! Sometimes they’ll just use the same plot arc over and over, and while it can still be fun if done well it really does send a clear message haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Classical music refrains are usually difficult to spot though. Due to the length of the compositions, often when the refrain returns you have to listen to the song again to pick up on the pattern, which is why it takes a while to appreciate a piece of classical music as opposed to pop, where its modern and accessible.

    Interesting post though, I enjoyed reading it. Now I have a new sonata to listen to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an interesting post! Makes me think of anaphora in writing/speaking–repeating a phrase at the beginning of several successive sentences, such as “I have a dream.” And there’s the recurrence of literary images (like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby). Anyway, I love this post, it’s so cool to see all the parallels between different types of music and poetry! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a lot like anaphora sometimes! Stravinsky does this almost exactly in a lot of his music actually where he’ll write a small musical segment and then repeat it with an extension and then repeat it again with a bigger extension…it’s pretty cool. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I happened by this post as it connects the nature of music and poetry, their essential connectivness–something I’ve been work on explicitly for the past year or so.

    Here’s one thing I’ve used, which is not new to musicians, but is somewhat foreign to readers or performers of poetry. Musicians, even those in the classical tradition, expect the freedom to create their own refrains from a musical phrase or a line in the lyrical text–but performers and readers of poetry somehow hold the text as “sacred” and will not repeat what the author did not write explicitly as a repeat.

    Because I’m focused this year on writing and performing music to accompany poems, I now think of the text as I would think of a musical phrase that I’m allowed to state simply as is, or to elaborate using my own taste as a performer. In performing poems and other texts I’ll often repeat stanzas, or create refrains from a line or two in the original text from this outlook.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really interesting!! I’ve never actually come across the idea of having the freedom to repeat things the composer didn’t write in the music. Normally I feel like classical musicians are pretty focused on the score, at least in my experience. I really like the idea of pairing music with poetry, though, and giving the performer some freedom! Very cool stuff.


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