Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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One of the things that made The Police so popular in the late-70s and 80s was the sense of communication between guitar, bass and drums. “Roxanne,” from their 1978 album “Outlandos d’Amour” is a case in point. I think the song would have been much less interesting musically if the band had simply laid down basic time as a backing rhythm throughout. The song intro, however, features a guitar playing staccato chords while the bass enters syncopated on the second half of the first beat of each bar. It’s in the chorus where the rhythm finally coalesces, and a driving groove finally happens.
And this got me thinking about the relationship between the role of harmony in songwriting, and the role of rhythm. I often describe the kind of chords one uses in the verse as typically “fragile” (i.e., a bit tonally ambiguous), while the chorus features stronger, more predictable ones.
The same concepts of fragile and strong can apply to rhythm, and it’s demonstrated in “Roxanne.”
When I listen to songs that are sent to me, it seems that many songwriters are getting the concept of the strong progression belonging in the chorus, with vaguer, less predictable progressions being more at home in the verse. But I tend to hear a backing rhythm that verges on tedius throughout the entire song.
So what’s the benefit of “fragile” rhythms in a verse? Fragile chord progressions create an unsettled, inconclusive air that needs some sort of resolution. Fragile rhythms do the same thing. They create in a song a sense that something more predictable, more convincing, is needed, and will eventually happen. With chord progressions, those more predictable harmonies occur typically in the chorus. And that’s where your more predictable rhythmic work should happen.
In “Roxanne”, compare the opening intro backing rhythm with the chorus (1′ 02″). The bass moves to playing directly on the beats, and all ambiguity disappears. The chord progressions, also, become strong and predictable.
And so the progress, with both rhythm and harmony, is from fragile to strong. That sequence makes listeners want to keep listening. A fragile rhythm subconsciously indicates to the listener that a stronger groove is coming, and they’ll stick around to hear it.
A basic driving rhythm is a no-brainer for the chorus. But what options do you have for creating interesting rhythmic treatments for your verse? A syncopated rhythmic approach is probably your best choice. But you might want to simply try lightening up on the drums in the verse. There are a lot of good examples of this. I like “Tunnel of Love” by Springsteen. The groove doesn’t really get going until the title lyric is sung (0′ 58″). Before this, the drums are sparse, with a syncopated bass drum to add the right amount of “fragility.”
You can also simply eliminate drums in the verse, bringing them in at the chorus, or substitute drums in the verse with light off-the-beat percussion.
So if, after recording your tune, you feel that things just aren’t punchy enough, try eliminating or minimizing the backing drums of the verse, or simply eliminate the downbeats. Bring the full drum set in at the chorus, and you’ll find the chorus will suddenly pop.
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