We use the term harmonic rhythm to describe the rate that chords change when compared to the number of melody notes.
So let’s say you’ve written a song where the melody is primarily a stream of 8th notes. If you’re not sure what that means, think of the verse (and that prominent intro bass line) of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean“, which is delivered mainly as a stream of 8th notes, with occasional faster rhythms and syncopations.
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If there are a lot of melody notes between chord changes — say, changing chords every 8-to-16 melody notes — we say that that section uses a slow harmonic rhythm, and that would describe the verse of “Billie Jean.” If the chords change more frequently while there are only a few melody notes between changes (every 4-8 melody notes), we might call that a fast harmonic rhythm.
Harmonic rhythm can be a great songwriter’s tool for managing musical energy within a song. Because quick chord changes tends to increase the energetic feel we get from music, it’s a natural way to make a section of your song sound and feel more energetic.
A good example of this is the recent track “Conversation” (Van McCann) by British indie group Catfish and the Bottlemen off their 2019 album “The Balance.” There’s not a lot of difference between the kind of rhythms the melody uses in the verse and chorus.
What does change, though, is how frequently the chords change. The chords change every four beats (i.e., every bar) in the verse, then things intensify in the chorus, with the chords changing mainly every two beats (i.e., two chords per bar.)
That switch to faster chord changes in the chorus helps to intensify musical energy. While the energy also builds simply due to production decisions (layering of guitar, louder drums, etc.), there is something to be said for helping to build energy in a natural way, by increasing the rate of change with regard to chords.
In your own songwriting, this is something definitely worth experimenting with. If you find that your chorus lacks the power or energy you’re hoping for, playing around with the harmonic rhythm gives you two immediate options:
- Increase the harmonic rhythm of your chorus to boost its natural energy level, or
- Decrease the harmonic rhythm of your verse to allow the eventual chorus to sound more energetic.
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