Good Things Come In Threes

There’s an expression that people often speak of when bad things happen;  bad things come in threes.  Whether that’s true or not, I suppose people tend to look for and count “bad things” when they happen in order to prove it to themselves.

I am also finding more and more evidence that when it comes to songs, good things also come in threes.  Let me explain.

I wrote in another article years ago called Self-Indulgence about repetition; how some songwriters repeat things too often, and others not enough.  At the time I didn’t come to any particular conclusion other than the fact that I often would repeat things three times and that seemed to be enough.  The elements that I referred to were things like melodic phrases, or lyrics that repeated, often in a chorus, but also in other parts of the song.

Lately I’ve been paying attention to how many times certain things are repeated in popular songs, especially melodic phrases since most of us tend to be drawn to the music first.  When I was playing a song with a young guitar student last week, Coldplay’s “Paradise”, it occurred to me that this song had that very type of repetition:

Dreamed of para- para- paradise
Para- para- paradise
Para- para- paradise
Every time she closed her eyes

The “para-para-paradise” is repeated three times in this chorus before it changes in the last line.

I recently posted in my I Like Songs blog about a song that was a recent Academy Award nominee, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.  I think it’s a great song and should have won, but what do I know?  🙂

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Ah, but Irene, you’ll say, the line is repeated FOUR times.  Yes, but.  The melody isn’t quite the same in each repetition, is it?  You have to listen to the song to see what I mean if you don’t know it.

Repetition is an interesting phenomenon.  You’ll notice it with very young children, the desire to have something repeated, especially something that makes them laugh.  Human beings are wired to want to experience something that gives us pleasure over and over again.  And there’s a psychological reason for that!  It’s called “Mere-Exposure Effect”.

Wikipedia describes the effect this way: “The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. In social psychology, this effect is sometimes called the familiarity principle. The effect has been demonstrated with many kinds of things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds.”  The emphasis is mine.

Pop music is notoriously repetitive…the choruses in pop are meant to be memorable and originally titles (or the “hook”, if you will) were specifically placed in the chorus so you would remember the name of the song in order to either request it on the radio, or buy the record.  Yes, manipulative, right?  But people wanted to hear those songs again and again, and the mere-exposure affect partly explains why.  We like what we know.

But how much is too much?

Today I saw an article about another remix of the Academy award-winning song “Let It Go” and the article began with “You’re probably sick of ‘Let It Go’ remixes, but…”.  We’ve all had the nausea-inducing effect of hearing a song or something in a song, once too often.  Even Taylor Swift chooses the songs she’s going to include on her next album by weeding out the ones she gets tired of first.

The Perfect Three Effect, which I am now going to call it just because I can, refers to how many times in a row something can safely be repeated without tiring the listener.  This includes lyrical and/or musical phrases.  If you look at your own songs, can you find any that include this phenomenon?  Sometimes these things come out of us without much thinking, and that’s the way it should be when you’re first sitting down to write.  But when you go back to re-write a song, that’s when you have to scrutinize it for elements that have to be fixed.  Watching out for how many times you repeat something, is an important part of that process.


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