“Familiarity” is a way of describing the effect that a section of music has on its listener when the listener recognises something in the music. Of course, the opposite of familiarity is unfamiliarity – when the listener does not recognise something in the music.

Degrees of familiarity refer to the idea that we don’t just have “Familiar” and “Not Familiar” – there are many levels in between. For example, we could speak of “Not familiar”, “Partially familiar”, and “Completely Familiar”.

When a section of music is not familiar, it means the listener does not recognise it – this is usually because the material is new (has not been presented earlier). This can create uncertainty, but can also have an effect of opening up expectations for a piece – for example, a short unfamiliar section right after the introduction of a piece can give the impression that more will be revealed, or that the unfamiliar material will be developed (or revisited) later in the piece.

When a section of music is partially familiar (a bit familiar), it is often because is bears some resemblance to previous material but it is changed, or developed. Some examples could be –

  • A new melody that shares the same rhythm of a previous melody
  • A bassline that matches a previous chord progression
  • A synth pad that’s been vocoded with the chorus vocals.

Slight familiarity can be powerful when used effectively, because it is a bridge between something known and something unknown. It can be used to soften a transition to new material. It can be used to give hints of where we came from, of where we’re going to. It can be used to make a new section feel more like it “belongs” to the piece.

When a section of music is completely familiar, it means the listener has heard it previously in almost exactly the same form. This is usually the result of literal repetition (repeating some material without changing it) and can be used to reinforce some particular material (like the chorus of a pop song). Complete familiarity can also be desirable at the end of a piece – at the conclusion. This is very similar to my mention of stability at the end of a piece.

Layers of familiarity is what happens with some parts playing familiar material, and some parts are playing unfamiliar material. Layers of familiarity are interesting for the same reasons as partial familiarity – it creates a crossover between known material and unknown material.

The concept of familiarity is not as concrete as some other aspects of music theory (such as chord progressions, voice leading, or filter sweeps). This is not meant to be the focus for a composer, and it doesn’t really make sense to study it on its own.

It’s something to keep in mind as you compose, something to think about in between figuring out how many times to repeat that drum loop and when to bring in the next synth line.

Familiarity can be linked with Stability, and Expectation. It’s important to understand, however, that while these concepts may often correlate (when familiarity is high, often stability is high as well) they are not the same, and interesting results can be achieved by mixing them in unusual ways.


  1. January 7th, 2012
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