Creative Lyric Writing Secrets: Repeating Words For Fun And Profit

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"Repetition, repetition, repetition"

Are you a beginning songwriter and your song lyrics sound "amateurish"? Do you wonder what "tricks" professional songwriters use to make their lyrics sound so catchy? Do you want to learn them? Sometimes they are simpler than you think.

The problem here is that most people who are getting started at lyrics writing approach it - with no doubt unconsciously - as if they were writing those horrible essays that they were forced to write at school.

But writing lyrics for a song is not like writing prose. For instance, when you were writing essays, your teachers had most likely told you that you should avoid repeating the same word over and over. It's the opposite in songwriting.

Indeed one thing that most beginning songwriters get wrong is that they don't use enough repetition. Lots of songs have a lot of words repeated many times. Sure, not everybody likes repetition, but in the words of the philosopher T.Swift, "haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate".

There are many ways to repeat words or even phrases in songs, and all these ways have already been classified (as "rhetorical figures") and have been given funny Greek names that are not really important but make you sound like you know what you're doing. :-) Let's see a couple useful ones.

The Basic Technique

Repeating a word or phrase immediately multiple times, like Ms. Swift above is doing, is a rhetorical figure called "Epizeuxis" (they tell me it means "fastening together" and no, I don't know how to pronounce that either...). It's so incredibly common in songwriting that if you pick three songs at random you are likely to find it used in their lyrics.

For instance the Taylor Swift song quoted above has a chorus completely built on Epizeuxis and, just to stay with the same songwriter, similar tricks are used in the lyrics for "We are never ever getting back together", "Wonderland", "You belong with me", "I knew you were trouble" and many more.

(No, I'm not a Taylor Swift expert, I just grabbed a random selection of her songs and read the lyrics... that goes to show how common is the repetition trick)

How Many Repetitions?

Unless you have a reason for a specific number of repetitions (say, you need to "fill up" a specific number of notes in your music...) the the rule of thumb is:

  • For repetition at the beginning of the phrase, repeat twice: "Tyger Tyger burning bright"; "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"; "Rage, rage against the dying of the light".
  • For stand-alone repetitions, repeat thrice: "words, words, words" (Shakespeare), "Girls, girls, girls" (Motley Crue)

As you can see, it works for both literature and songwriting

(Ok, I confess. I wrote this article as an excuse to quote Shakespeare and Motley Crue in the same line. Sue me.)

So Do You Want To Be Clever?

If you want to be terribly clever, you can repeat a word but have it mean a different thing the second time that you use it. This is a different rhetorical figure called Antanaclasis, which allegedly means "reflection" (hey I wasn't the one that came up with the names, ok?)

Antanaclasis tends to be common in Country songs, for instance "a high maintenance woman/ Don't want no maintenance man" (Toby Keith), or "there's bars on the corner and bars on my heart" (Tim McGraw), but it's used in all styles.

A famous example of a subtle Antanaclasis comes from Hotel California. Let's see if you can spot it: "Mirrors on the ceiling/ the pink champagne on ice".

The Antanaclasis is on the word "on", as it is used in two ways: the mirrors are not "on" the ceiling the same way that the champagne is "on" ice.

What Should You Do Now?

Your first step at this point should be to read the lyrics of songs you like and try to spot how the songwriters is using repetition. Just a few songs will do the trick - you will "get an ear" for repetition very fast.

In the meantime if you find yourself plagued by writer's block, see here how to get inspiration for songwriting