Why Pattern is so Elemental to Art

Why Pattern is so Elemental to Art

The human brain craves order. It seeks out the familiar, and attempts to organize the unfamiliar. It finds particular satisfaction in repetition. In fact, once it recognizes pattern, the brain comes to expect it, and even impose it wherever possible.

Full Definition of pattern

  • 1: a form or model proposed for imitation :  exemplar
  • 2: something designed or used as a model for making things <a dressmaker’s pattern>
  • 3: an artistic, musical, literary, or mechanical design or form
  • 4: a natural or chance configuration <frost patterns> <the pattern of events>
  • 5: a length of fabric sufficient for an article (as of clothing)
  • 6a : the distribution of shrapnel, bombs on a target, or shot from a shotgun
 b :  the grouping made on a target by bullets
  • 7: a reliable sample of traits, acts, tendencies, or other observable characteristics of a person, group, or institution <a behavior pattern> <spending patterns>
  • 8a : the flight path prescribed for an airplane that is coming in for a landing
 b :  a prescribed route to be followed by a pass receiver in football
  • 9: test pattern
  • 10: a discernible coherent system based on the intended interrelationship of component parts <foreign policy patterns>
  • 11: frequent or widespread incidence <a pattern of dissent> <a pattern of violence>

~source: Merriam-Webster.com

The third definition is the most applicable to the arts, but if you read the entire passage, you pick up some of the nuances that make pattern so compelling. Patterns can be deliberately manufactured, or they can be quite random. They occur in nature, and they are imitated in art.

Listen to the opening melody of Bach’s “Little” Fugue. Can you detect each time it makes its appearance?

During the baroque and classical eras, rules of counterpoint, melody, and harmony were so strictly prescribed that in the 1990s it was suggested that listening to Mozart’s music would set tiny brains to analyzing its structure, helping the brain recognize patterns, and setting children up for remarkable cognitive ability (The Mozart Effect). Many of my former elementary school students recognized pieces of classical music on the basis of it having been cued up for them on their bedtime music playlists. Unfortunately, no scientific evidence exists that proves merely listening to music makes you a genius.

Patterns were employed from the earliest days of fabric manufacturing, as this piece of hand-woven cloth:


…or this more modern crocheted doily:


During the colonial period in America (and earlier on other continents), women sewed geometric scraps of fabric together, making utilitarian bed covers out of what might have been thrown away. And although women of modest means didn’t have much control over their choice of materials, they somehow combined them in ways to extract some beauty out of them. Their patterns are still duplicated today…


…and taken further.

Art has long showcased pattern.

The popularity of zentangle is largely due to the repetition of patterns.

Part of the beauty of dance is the patterns made by the dancers. The ever changing angles created by the legs:


Returning to the realm of music, can you hear the repeated patterns in this musical composition?

For more discussion of patterns and more examples, refer to these articles:

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