Repetition In Music

So you've learned to play music from sheet-music, and have purchased a book of sheet-music. You excitedly pick out a piece in it, and start playing it.

Chances are, you play a part of it, and notice different words for the same section of music, so figure (correctly) that section of music must be played multiple times.

But after that, there are sections of music mis-matched from where they come (from your memory of the piece), and just playing them through to the end doesn't work from how you remember the piece.

What went wrong?

The answer is, that nobody explained to you how repetition works in written music.

In this tutorial, we will explain repetition in written music, and clear up the mystery (or confusion) described above.

Note: In this tutorial, there are short snippets of actual sheet-music, which we believe fall within the educational fair use clause of copyright law.

These snippets are from the music book:

Songs Of The '60s - 2nd Edition, piano vocal guitar

The Decade Series

ISBN 978-0-88188-566-8

Published by Hal Leonard Corporation

If the snippets interest you, please purchase the book – it's well worth the cost, in our opinion.

Why Repetition In Music? Can't they just print it as continuous music, from beginning to end?

They could, making music books have more pages, but there is a reason for printing it using repetition, that helps you (the performer), in addition to reducing cost for the publisher:

It's a pain to turn pages while performing music. The shorter the printed music is (the fewer pages), the better chance you won't mess up while trying to turn a page.

How do you turn the page while playing?

With the KeyMusician Keyboard, when you get to the last melody-note of the page, tap the sustain-control (space-bar), which sustains all melody notes playing at that point, then reach up with your left hand and turn the page, then resume playing melody (and chords), again tapping the sustain-control (space-bar) to release it.

Sometimes it may be easier to do this either prior to the end of the page, or after the end of the page, playing the missing part from memory.

Our Repetition Example

So you open a music book to the piece you want to play, looking for the solo part, and the chords (as we have taught you). But the piece doesn't start with a solo part (and in some cases, there aren't even any chords shown for that section). Take a look at the following snippet (from the beginning of a piece):


We normally just play the solo part, but only the piano part is shown! There's no solo part (which would be above the piano part).

Thankfully, the chords are shown, which makes your task easier.

What's shown above is an instrumental introduction. They can also appear within a piece, as an instrumental interlude (or a 'break' for the singer).

Try playing (along with the chords) the highest of each of the 'stacked' notes (the highest part). Then try it again with the lowest notes (in the bass clef).

This will give you an idea of how the introduction (or interlude) goes, or maybe you even remember it from having listened to the piece.

If there are no chords shown, play the section, and try different chords with it. The chord progressions may be similar to other sections of the piece.

You can play something similar to what's written, or you can use it as a guide to improvising your own version of it. You could even just leave it out, and start start playing where the solo part starts – you be the judge of that.

Also notice in the above snippet, that there is a short lead-in note (or notes) before the first measure bar (where you start counting 1, 2, 3, 4 for the measure). Music doesn't always start with a down-beat (of a conductor).

That section leads in to where the solo part starts, so now we know how play it, and we're on our way.

Before long (just after the solo part begins, we run into the beginning of a repeated section of music. The beginning of a repeated section of music is marked with a double measure-bar, with two dots to the right of it:


You see in the picture below, there is a begin-repeat marker both for the solo part, and the two clefs of the piano part:


The double measure-bar (with the two dots to the right of it) indicates the beginning of a section of repeated music.

So we start playing the solo part of the the repeated section, but notice the notes pointed-to by the blue arrows. There are different versions of the tune – the first version full-size, and the second version (pointed-to by the arrows) slightly reduced in size.

These alternate versions of the notes, show you how to play it differently in each verse, to match the words. Think of the words as you play it, which is the easiest guide to the version of melody notes to play.

Where we have a beginning of a repeated section, there must later be the end of the repeated section, and there is, but it's often a little more complicated than just an end-repeat measure bar, which looks like:


Often, we play the end of the repeated section differently each time through. The different way we play the end of the repeated section is indicated by different endings. The endings are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc., as shown below (marked by the blue arrow):


The double measure-bar, with the 2 dots to the left of it (pointed-to by the green arrow), marks the end of a repeated section. Notice also, the marked area (pointed-to by the blue arrow) consisting of the last two measures, with the number “1” in it. This indicates these measures constitute the “first ending”. It means the first time through the repeated section, you play this first ending.

This “first ending” mark applies to not only the solo part, but also the piano part.

Right after the first ending and the end-repeat measure-bar (in this case, it happens to start a new line on the page), is the second ending, which we play instead of the first ending, on the second time through. The second ending is marked with the number 2 (pointed-to by the blue arrow):


The mark above the measure with the “2” in it, indicates the second-ending, and applies to all parts (solo and piano).

Notice that the second line of lyrics (words) just before the first-ending (pointed-to by the red arrow in the picture prior to the above picture), flow right into the lyrics (words) in the second-ending (marked by a red-arrow in the picture above).

After the marked measure (since it's the last ending), we just go on playing the music to the right of the second ending.

In some pieces of music there may be more than just two endings, in which case, the marking of the ending measure(s) will have an appropriate numeric digit (1, 2, 3, etc.).

As we play along in the music beyond the repeated section, we may encounter a measure with a strange symbol above it:


This symbol is called “the sign” (in Italian, it's “Dal Segno”, which means “The Sign). Take note of it, because if it appears, somewhere later in the music, we will be told to “go to the sign” (except they tell us to do that in Italian):


The strange symbol, pointed-to by the blue arrow, is “the sign”. Later in the piece, we'll be told to skip back to here.

As we continue playing, we may encounter another strange symbol at the beginning of a measure:


This symbol will later be used to mark the beginning of the coda (the ending section). It appears in the picture below (pointed-to by the blue arrow), along with the words “To Coda”:


It doesn't mean that we go to the Coda (ending) now (as we first encounter it), but rather, the next time we encounter it (probably from having been directed to go back to “the sign”).

Note that the strange symbol (pointed-to by the blue arrow) used to designate the Coda (ending) is different from “the sign” (shown earlier).

In playing a repeated section of music, we may encounter a measure-bar indicating the end of a repeated section that has no first, second, or third endings marked, as in the following picture:


In this case, we simply repeat the section (going back to the begin-repeat measure-bar) as many times as there are lines of words (lyrics) within the section.

If there was a measure earlier in the piece, marked with “the sign” (as there was is this piece), at some point, there will be directions to “go back to the sign, only they will most likely tell you to do that in Italian, as shown here:


Here, they're not only telling you to go back to the sign (“Dal Segno”) in Italian, but they're also abbreviating Dal Segno as “D. S.”, as they often do.

The "(no repeats)" part of it (finally - something in English), tells us that as we play the music going forward from “the sign”, we don't play any of the repeats, in other words, only one time through each repeated section.

In some pieces, they will use “D. S. al FINE” or “D.S. al Finé, which means to go back to the sign, and end the piece at the measure marked “Finé, which means “End” in Italian.

The “al Coda” part of the picture above, means that after going back to the sign, playing forward from there, when we encounter the “To Coda” instructions, we should go directly to the Coda (marked with its own strange symbol), as shown below:


The strange symbol under the word “CODA” marks the beginning of the end section (coda) of the piece.

In the coda of the example piece, there is another kind of repeated section:


The “Repeat ad lib.” instructions tell you to repeat the section as many times as you want (“ad lib.” stands for ad libitum, which means “according to pleasure”). You might see a section such as this for a repeated ending phrase that is recorded as a fade-out.

And finally, we come to the end of the piece, the real, honest-to-goodness end, marked with an end-section measure-bar:


Here is a picture of the end of the piece:


The last note(s) in each clef have above them, a symbol like a birds-eye (pointed-to by the blue arrow), which is called a fermata (another Italian word), which means to hold the note longer than the written length, an amount of your choosing.

The fermata can occur anywhere in a piece (not just at the end), and it can appear over a rest-mark (rather than a note). Either way, it indicates the note (or rest) is held longer than the written value.

This example piece, with its many things used, should (along with our explanations) give you an understanding of repetition in music, extensive enough to properly play the repetitions in most music you will encounter.

Note: As of version 1.28, published on March 1st, 2017, this article is included as one of the tutorials installed on your machine. If you don't have that version (or later), feel free to re-install.

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