Melody lines tend to focus on one main rhythm: the chosen rhythmic value.
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We know that the rhythm of your melody line is going to be largely dictated by the inherent pulse of the words you use. And if that’s not happening, you’ll see that your melody will have an unnatural feel — usually a stilted rhythm that impedes the flow of the line.
You’ll notice when you compose song melodies that you tend to use one certain length of note more than others. To demonstrate what I mean, listen to the verse of “Clarity” by Zedd ft. Foxes. The tempo is 126 bpm. The predominant note length is the quarter note — the theoretical name for the note that gets the beat. So you can consider the quarter note to be “Clarity’s” basic rhythmic value.
But of course, this song, and most songs, use other rhythmic values. But you will notice that most of the time, melodies sound natural when they use rhythms on either side of the basic beat. So in “Clarity”, you hear a few notes that are half the length of the chosen rhythmic value, and then a few notes that are twice as long, always coming back to that rhythmic value — the basic beat (in this song) — as being most important.
In other songs, the chosen rhythmic value of melody note may not necessarily be the one that represents the beats per minute. So in P!nk’s “Just Give Me a Reason”, the tempo (i.e., the quarter note) is approximately 96 bpm. But the predominant note value that’s used is the 8th-note — twice as fast as a quarter note. So you’ll see that the 8th-note is the chosen rhythmic value, with some faster 16-th notes thrown in, and some slower quarter notes.
This is a principle of melodic rhythm that has been in existence for literally hundreds of years. Classical composers would instinctively create melodies for which the rhythms would be one value faster or one value slower than a chosen basic rhythmic value, always returning to it. The famous “William Tell Overture” by Rossini is a good example, where the 8th note is the chosen rhythmic value, with lots of 16ths (the faster value), as well as several quarter notes (the slower value) thrown in.
That certainly doesn’t mean you won’t see other rhythmic values used. Because of the nature of good music, it’s hard to make this kind of guideline a rule. But thinking of your melody has being comprised largely of one main value, and then occasionally moving either side of it, strengthens the structure of your melodies.
Here are four other related thoughts to keep in mind regarding melodic rhythm:
- Allow the rhythm of a chorus melody to simplify. In a chorus, it will feel stronger and more “hooky” if you stick more to the chosen basic rhythm. “Just Give Me a Reason” demonstrates this very well.
- Use a good mix of rhythms in a song verse. That will allow the switch to simpler rhythms in the chorus melody to feel stronger and more rhythmically solid.
- Don’t feel that your instrumental rhythms have to always match your vocal rhythms. In fact, it’s nice if longer notes in a melody are matched with more active notes in the instruments, and vice versa.
- Make sure that the rhythm of your melody allows the natural pulse of words to occur. For example, if you’re setting the word “umbrella”, be sure that “brel” happens on a strong beat. Allowing the natural pulse of words to happen is crucial to an audience understanding the text, and having your music feel rhythmically secure.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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