Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is a Reprise? Learn How Reprise Is Used in Music With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Apr 26, 2019 • 3 min read

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Composers rarely intend for a piece of music to be played once and never again. That’s why pop songwriters repeat entire sections, classical composers use recapitulations, and Broadway creators bring back key songs during the course of a musical. These repetitions are known as a reprise.

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What Is Reprise?

A reprise is a repetition of musical material heard earlier in a composition, album, or live performance. Repeated sections of songs are reprises. So are motifs that re-appear in a section of a classical sonata or a Hollywood film score. So, too, are songs that come back toward the end of a musical theater production.

What Is the Definition of Reprise?

The word “reprise” derives from the French word “repris,” meaning “the act of taking back.” The word further traces back to the Latin word “reprendre,” which means “taken up again.” The word is most commonly used in music, but definitionally it can refer to any resumption of an action.

How Is Reprise Used in Music?

A reprise is used in most genres of music. Here’s how reprise is used in several different musical genres.

  • Classical music. Reprises are most common in the recapitulation section of the sonata form. Composers establish an original theme in the sonata’s exposition section, they explore the possibilities of that theme in the development section and then offer a reprise of the initial theme in the recapitulation section. Sonata form is prevalent throughout classical music, from solo instrumental pieces to symphonies.
  • Film music. Film composers assign particular motifs to characters and settings. These motifs appear in reprise throughout the film. Think of the motifs in the Star Wars series. Composer John Williams assigns specific music to those aligned with the Force and the Dark Side, and these motifs appear in reprise throughout the ever-expanding library of these films.
  • Musical theater. Musical theater uses reprises as situations develop and characters re-emerge. From old classics like South Pacific and Damn Yankees to contemporary Broadway hits like Avenue Q and Hamilton, you’ll almost never see a musical that doesn’t feature reprises.
  • Jazz. Jazz musicians use reprises through a head-solo-head song format. The players begin by playing a pre-composed section called the head, they then break off into solos inspired by that head, and the conclude the song with a reprise of the initial theme.
  • Pop and rock. Pop and rock are built on repetition, and every time a riff, vocal hook, or complete chorus gets repeated, we could deem it a reprise. Whether it’s Tom Morello digging into a guitar lick or Christina Aguilera returning to a chorus, reprises are a pop musician’s best friend.

Examples of Reprise in Music

Below are a few examples of how reprise is used in different kinds of music.

  • Reprises are quite common in musical theater. Let’s say you are playing the stage role of Curly in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic Oklahoma! You’ll open the show with a solo rendition of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning,” which sets the scene for the show that’s yet to come. During the ensuing two acts of theater, many more songs will be sung, but at the very end of the show—during the curtain call—“Oh What A Beautiful Morning” returns as a group reprise. In the role of Curly, you conclude the show by returning to your earlier theme, only now you do so with the entire cast.
  • Reprises are also key to improvisational music, like jazz. When Herbie Hancock leads his ensembles, he begins most tunes with a head, a jazz term to describe an initial melody that the rest of the song will be built around. Once the head has been played, the band goes into solo sections: Hancock will solo on the keyboard and other members of the ensemble will similarly be featured on their respective instruments. Once the solo sections are finished, the band plays the head again. In other words, the original theme has returned in the reprise.
  • Pop music also uses reprises as choruses are repeated throughout a song. When Carlos Santana leads his eponymous band through “Oye Como Va,” the infectious chorus pops up throughout the song as the band jams in the intervening spaces. In a Timbaland composition for Aaliyah or Missy Elliott, any manner of music can be reprised, from choruses to instrumental hooks.
  • Film music makes ample use of reprises as characters are tracked throughout a film. When Hans Zimmer scores a film, he assigns specific motifs to specific characters, and reprises that music using a variety of keys, tempos, and feels. This creates a musical thru-line to accompany the visual and emotional thru-lines already intrinsic to the film.

Learn more about musical composition with Hans Zimmer here.