Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Contrast is the songwriting element that pulls a listener in and keeps them interested. It’s easy to consider contrast when thinking about melodies: choruses tend to be higher pitched than verses. But there’s another aspect of melodies that is often neglected: the rhythm of the melody. Diana Vicker’s “Once” brilliantly demonstrates how to use rhythmic contrast to its best effect.
Generally, the combining of lyric and melody is a rhythmic exercise. You need to place words in such a way that the natural pulse of the words is allowed to come through. In other words, if the natural accent of a word is on the first beat, you’ll want to place that word on a strong beat within your time signature.
Then, after considering those natural pulses, you’ll want to think about combinations of words – phrases – and make sure that they are placed in such a way as to take advantage of the natural rhythm of the word combination.
But beyond that, there is a third rhythmic consideration, and “Once” (written by Cathy Dennis and Eg White) demonstrates this third one very well. I’m talking about the use of syncopation and other “displaced beat” rhythmic devices as a contrasting feature between verse and chorus.
A syncopation simply means that words we expect to happen on strong beats are displaced, and happen on weak beats. It’s a great rhythmic device to use because this rhythmic displacing of words tends to generate energy.
We know that choruses tend to be a bit more predictable, a bit more straight-forward than verses. So it makes sense that if you’re going to use rhythmic devices in a song, they’ll work better in the verse than in the chorus. And this is what happens in “Once.”
The verse rhythms feature syncopations within every phrase. Here’s a sample of the opening line:
Now, compare that to the rhythm of the chorus, which uses almost no syncopation, and reverts to placing most words directly on the beat, with little interplay between beats:
The non-syncopated, straight-forward rhythms of the chorus present the text in a much stronger, beat-centric way that goes hand in hand with the goal of a chorus: to present musical ideas in stronger, more conclusive ways.
The contrasting of rhythmic devices in this way is one fundamental contributor to the song’s success. It’s a good reminder to songwriters that the consideration of rhythm, particularly of how rhythm should be contrasted between verse and chorus, is a facet of songwriting that needs to always be considered.
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