Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Melody Repetion in Songwriting



I'm 60 years old and love music of many, many genres. However, I have absolutely ZIP musical training.

I've noticed a characteristic that seems to be common in many of the songs I LOVE and was wondering if there is a term for this musical characteristic. The characteristic is where the melody in a song is constantly repeated, but builds and develops as the piece move forward. Here are a few examples of this style:

1. Bolero - By Ravel (Classical)
2. Hey Jude - Beatles
3. Isn't It a Pity - George Harrison

Do you know anything about this as being part of a style of composition and if there is a term for it? Can you provide any additional insight into this.

I maintain a web site called:

and was going to include a song that contained this characteristics. It would be great to know a little more before I did the post.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Hi Dale,

The recurring passages you hear in music are themes and motifs.

Similar to literature, musical compositions have main thoughts and ideas that recur throughout the work. In music, a theme is the subject of the piece. It is the complete musical idea that can stand alone by itself apart from the music that is built around it. Think of the "Lone Ranger" song, which is the William Tell Overture. The part that we all know and sing is a complete thought. It can exist as a song all by itself, despite the fact that it is part of a much larger work. In music, the theme can exist without the rest of the music, but the entirety of the composition can't exist without the theme (not cohesively, anyway). If we were writing sentences instead of musical works, the theme would be our independent clause. It's part of a larger sentence, but in and of itself it is a complete sentence. An independent clause can have other, smaller thoughts attached to it, but these are just flavorful additions to our main thought.

Similarly is the concept of a motif. A motif is a piece of recurring music; however, it cannot stand alone as it's own little "ditty" and needs considerable support from the rest of the song. It is defined as a harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic cells. These cells are the smallest analyzable phrases within a piece. In keeping with our sentence writing analogy, a motif is a recurring subordinate clause. It can't exist as a song without the rest of the piece, but it does have a sonic identity of its own. A great example of a motif is Glenn Miller's "In The Mood" the repetitiveness of the opening lines are vital to the song, but if you sing it by itself, it isn't much of a song without the rest of the music.

In both cases of theme and motif, it is generally considered poor form to be redundant in music, just like in literature and speech. No matter how long or short a piece is, music is a story. Some are short stories, and some are long stories. Regardless, it would be exceptionally boring to tell a story that has no development to it. Stories develop characters and plot devices, making twists and turns, and building until they reach an climatic point. Music is no different, and themes and motifs are developed similarly, which is why you will keep hearing the same musical ideas being repeated throughout a piece, but each time it may change slightly so that we're not repeating ourselves, but moving to a climatic moment in our song.

I hope that helps. When you try to understand music, always approach it from a language perspective. It is a universal language, found globally. It may sound like it's complex, but it actually operates no differently than spoken or written word.

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Jessica Vaughan


I can answer any questions about Music Theory and Music Education, and I can answer questions about musical composition in American and Western European folk and popular music. I can also answer questions about playing in musical ensembles.

I CANNOT answer questions about orchestral composition, vocal compositions or give advice on how to sing. My specialty is non-classical music, however I can answer some classical questions.


I am a professional musician having played music since age 5. I have been a professional musician since the age of 13. I have been a full-time private music educator since 2002, and I am a full-time performer. I have had many students of all ages who have also become professional and semi-professional. My specialty is non-classical music, however I am classically trained since age 9. I play: piano, trumpet, violin, guitar, fiddle, electric bass, mandolin, and I sing (however, my technical knowledge in the vocal area is limited). I am also a studio musician and also a "hired gun" (musician who is paid to quickly fill in for stage/live performances).


I have been a musician for 29 years and I am 34 years old. My mother was my main teacher my entire life. She has a Bachelor of Music Education, an Associate of Arts, a Master of Music, and is an adjunct professor at Indiana Weslyan University. I studied piano under professors from Cleveland State University since I was 10, and I studied violin under Simma Korostoshevsky, former Master Violinist with the Toledo Symphony. I've played in the bluegrass band "Rogues Hollow Junction", am a regular guest with local performing groups, placed 3rd in the State in championship old-time fiddling, and I do play professionally and have done so since I was 13.

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