Bolero; progression through repetition.

Ravel’s Bolero is a bit of a stand out in classical music. I remember my grandfather mentioning to me once that it was one of his favorite pieces of music. I must confess, having only a passing interest in the classical genre (as wide scoping as that is) it was only recently that I learned that Ravel’s masterpiece was first released in 1928. My grandfather was born in 1914, so this means he came to know it as a current piece of music, a “new release ” if you will. I had honestly assumed it was a much older work.

Bolero was conceived as a ballet, and consists of two different melodies, which alternate. The boldness of the piece is the repetition. The melodies repeat over and over, in a crescendo that ends in a rather bombastic fortissimo finale. The melodies never change, and to my ears the weaving organic themes offer a juxtaposition to what I like to think of as a relentless mechanical increase in power.

I was always a fan of Jeff Beck’s “Beck’s Bolero” for precisely the same reasons. His melodic, simple lead line repeats as a theme throughout. When the song occasionally veers into other areas, Beck soon reels it back in with the repetitive theme. It’s a fantastic and concise example of Ravel’s concept in a rock format.

This lead me to think about when this idea has been used elsewhere in rock music. One example that comes to mind for me is the seldom heard “Crossing Over” by Van Halen. It appeared as a track on the Japanese release of their 1995 album Balance, but not on the U.S. version. Not a Bolero, but during the long outro guitarist Edward Van Halen begins to repeat a simple, muted and clipped line. After a few moments he increases the volume and sustain, and it gradually grows in volume and eclipses the vocals. The song fades out with this guitar incessantly droning this eerie theme. It is in part so effective here because anyone familiar with Van Halen expects Edward to burst forth at any time with a flurry of notes. The payoff is that he never does, and the slightly sinister vibe is so much richer because of that.

Are there any good examples you can think of of this “propulsion through repetition ” in popular music? I’d love to hear about them!

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