You Can Say That Again

by Dolores Andrew
Originally Published Winter 2004

What do Cole Porter, Van Gogh, Dr. Seuss, Mondrian, Jane Austen, Mozart, and The Beatles have in common? Of course, they were all creators of well-known works in various art forms. In addition, they each used the technique of repetition. The design principal of repetition is one of the most basic techniques used in all creative work, including needlework. When the creator repeats something, the device reinforces the image so that the theme will stay with the viewer, reader, or listener.

The method is recognizable in music when a note or a phrase is repeated frequently, or sometimes constantly, throughout the composition. The device is obvious in a simple tune such as “Three Blind Mice,” but classical composers used it in their works as well. Rossini tied his overtures together by repeated phrasing. Beethoven repeated the theme over and over again in his “Violin Concerto,” and used melody repetition in many of his other compositions. Wagner used a “Leitmotif” for each of the characters in his “Ring” operas. This repeated identifying phrase helps the audience to recognize them in his often confusing and convoluted libretti. The same technique of recognition is employed in the familiar “Peter and the Wolf.” A distinctive musical phrase repeated on a particular instrument identifies each of the characters in the story.

Writers often use repetition as a plot device in literature. Edgar Allen Poe quoted the Raven repeatedly to create a feeling of mystery and dread. Jane Austen used repetition for humor. She repeated a word or a phrase to emphasize a character flaw, a character’s nervous quirk or as a repetitious annoyance to the other characters in her books. A contemporary and blatant exponent of the principal of repetition is Dr. Seuss. His repetition of simple words and phrases and repeating rhyming sounds has helped millions of children to learn to love to read. Jack Benny and his writers used the repeated running gag to create very effective comedy. Even repeated sound effects such as Benny’s Maxwell automobile and Fibber McGee’s closet were radio comedy classics.

Repetition in art takes many forms. It can be a repeated shape or line. However, the repeated element does not have to be identical to the original. The artist can enlarge it, reduce it, reverse it, or vary color and value to create repetitive elements. Van Gogh repeated similar brush strokes, Mondrian repeated and modified shapes, and Seurat did it with dots.