In music, when we think rhythm, we’re usually talking about rhythms that naturally come about due to one or both of the following:
- the rhythms created by the way a lyric is sung;
- the rhythms created by the rhythm section of the band/production.
In good music, rhythm means more than that. As a songwriter (and then as a producer if you’re recording your own music), you need to be aware of the many levels of rhythm within a song. This awareness helps to create a natural kind of musical energy and momentum that keeps listeners hooked.
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Check out the following tips. They’ll get you thinking about what you can be doing to bring your music alive with rhythm.
- Keep the rhythms of the chorus lyric simple and beat-oriented. The rhythms that you use to set your chorus lyric should be on-the-beat, mostly unsyncopated. I’ve liked using “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)“, sung by Kelly Clarkson, as a good recent example. Compare how the verse lyric’s quick delivery differs from the sudden simplicity of the chorus.
- Create a backing rhythm for your instruments that partners with the rhythm of the vocal line. This might mean borrowing some of the rhythm of the vocal line and doing something similar for the instruments. You hear this clearly in John Denver’s 1975 hit “Fly Away“, but more recently in Pharrell William’s “Happy.” It might also mean creating something that works like a kind of counterpoint, pleasantly avoiding the rhythmic patterns of the voice.
- Rhythm is most effective when it’s layered. Check out the intro of John Newman’s “Cheating“, and you’ll hear many different rhythmic patterns happening simultaneously. Each rhythm works to complement the other, and together, all the rhythms create a kind of musical energy that none would be able to produce on their own.
- Vocal rhythm should accommodate the natural rhythm of the words, at least most of the time. When the naturally-occurring rhythm of words is changed simply to create an interesting rhythmic treatment for your song, your vocals can sound stilted and forced. So when setting lyrics, say the words over and over, and seek out a rhythmic presentation that sounds easy and natural.
- The rhythms of lower-pitched instruments and drums will strongly affect the energy of the music. It’s possible for a higher-pitched instrument, like a guitar, string section or flute, to play actively in the upper register without it necessarily having a powerful effect on the overall energy of the music. Listen to Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” to get a sense of what I mean. The guitar plays a very energetic figure to start the song, but it could be argued that the highly syncopated drums and bass that join in do more to hype up the general excitement factor. So to energize your music, move exciting rhythms to the lower instruments at crucial moments.
All this is to say that rhythm isn’t one of those random musical effects that just happen. Rhythm is something that good songwriters should think about as they create their songs, and good producers should think about as they create the final product.