Harmonic Rhythm, and Dealing With That Panicky Feeling

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James TaylorHarmonic rhythm sounds like a term that would refer to the rhythms you use when you play chords. But that’s not quite it: harmonic rhythm is a term we use to describe the frequency of chord changes in a progression. It’s a bit of an abstract concept, because harmonic rhythm is not notated as such. But considering the pace of your chord changes can be an important contributor to overall song energy.

Almost every musical characteristic that can be attributed to harmonic rhythm could be followed by the words, “…but not always.” A quick harmonic rhythm (i.e., chords that change rather quickly) can result in music sounding a bit panicky (but not always).

In general, most successful songs will operate on a fairly steady harmonic rhythm (but not always).

Harmonic rhythm, like most other musical concepts, is best dealt with if you notice a problem with your songs, rather than trying to write a song from scratch by adhering to rules. So if you find that either 1) your song has a frantic, panicky feel, and you don’t want it; or 2) your chord progressions have a random, unsettled feel, you might want to think about harmonic rhythm.

Fast chord changes tend to add energy to music. But because nothing happens in isolation in songwriting, other aspects can temper the energy of your song, such as instrumentation, dynamics, vocal range, and so on.

Your instincts will tell you if the frequency of chord changes is right. Changing chords on every beat, for example, often doesn’t work well for ballads.

You’ll notice that most songs work on a regular pattern of chord changes: every 2, 4 or 8 or more beats. In and around that steady pattern, it’s common to occasionally change them more or less frequently.

For example, if your song shows a harmonic rhythm of 4 beats, it’s common to occasionally change after 2 beats, or after 8.

A good example that demonstrates this is James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face.” The harmonic rhythm switches very easily between 1-beat changes (the first 8 beats of the verse), to 2-beat changes starting on the 9th beat.

And one other important consideration when working out a chordal scheme for your songs: the harmonic rhythm should be inversely proportional to the tempo.

This means that the faster your song, the slower the harmonic rhythm should usually be. This guideline is one that’s actually been in place for centuries. Even as far back as the music of the Baroque era (1600-1750), composers were aware that quick tempos meant it was best to hang on to chords longer before changing to the next one.

The best way to become familiar with the effects of a slow versus quick harmonic rhythm is to play a progression by holding each chord for one beat, then try it with 2 beats per chord, then 4, and so on. Vary the tempo and performance style, and make mental note of the effect harmonic rhythm has on the mood and feel.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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