Rhythm is a crucial part of the energy of music. When music is more rhythmically active, you feel an intensity that generates excitement, and that can be an important part of breathing life into a song.
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But it’s not quite as straightforward as that, because rhythm happens on different levels within a song. Among those many levels, there are two aspects of rhythm that stand out in practically every song:
- Backing instrumental rhythms. This is the kind of rhythmic treatment you pick up from the drums, rhythm guitar, keyboards and bass, for example. When production is rhythmically intense, audiences pick up an excitement and strength that is interpreted as power. When the music’s rhythm relaxes, the energy also relaxes.
- Vocal line rhythm. We perceive rhythm differently when it comes to the lead singer. In many songs, the vocal line is rhythmically more active in the verse than it is in the chorus. During the verse, the vocals often use busier rhythms, syncopation and other rhythmic techniques to go hand-in-hand with the pulse and accents (not to mention meaning) of the words. But during the chorus, rhythms tend to simplify, and vocal notes actually get a bit longer — less “busy” — and audiences pick up more emotional content.
Vocal line rhythm is a really important one, because the singer has the potential to connect most powerfully with an audience, usually more so than the instruments. And though we often think of how the singer is presenting the song (vocal style), the rhythms they’re required to sing are more important than you might think.
In most songs the difference is subtle. It’s not a case of hearing a really busy, complex rhythmic treatment in a verse, and then suddenly everything changes for the chorus.
Think of Carole King’s classic hit “You’ve Got a Friend” as a good example of how subtle this difference usually is. The verse and chorus rhythms are actually very similar, but you’ll hear in the chorus that the rhythm settles down, becomes a bit more predictable, and pairs up nicely with the groove of the song.
A more obvious example is John Legend’s “All of Me“; compare the rhythms of the vocal line in the verse with what happens in the chorus — complexity and syncopation giving way to a much more relaxed, predictable rhythmic treatment of the chorus. The transition is smooth as ice, but the differences are clear.
But why, if you’re trying to generate some energy in the vocal line, does it work to relax the vocal rhythms and switch to something more predictable and simplistic? Mainly because when a voice lingers on notes (particularly ones in which the crucial title words are found), we feel the emotional energy stronger than if the rhythms are short and intense. It’s all about how we connect with the voice.
So it’s a good aspect of your songwriting to look closely at, if you find that your song choruses just aren’t generating enough of an impact. You may need to look at the actual rhythms of the notes you’re singing during the chorus. There may be opportunity to intensify the emotional impact by elongating notes, particularly the ones that have the song title being sung.
A couple of years ago I did a video to describe this concept:
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