Otis Redding

Making Sense of Harmonic Rhythm In Your Songs

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Harmonic rhythm is the term we use to describe how frequently you change chords in your progressions when compared to how many notes are happening at the same time in your melodies. So if you strum a chord for, let’s say, four beats, but during those four beats there’s a steady stream of fast 16th-notes happening in the melody, you’ve got what would be called a slow harmonic rhythm.

I find that for songwriters, though, it’s better to simplify the definition and use this: harmonic rhythm is how many beats you strum on a chord before you move on to the next one (regardless of what’s going on in the melody.)

Harmonic rhythm may not be something you think consciously about, but it’s actually fairly important. The consistency of your chord changes is an important part of the groove of your song. It’s the one aspect of your song where a bit of predictability is a good thing.

So for example, if you listen to (“Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (Steve Cropper, Otis Redding), you’ll hear a fairly consistent pattern of one chord per bar. But then during the bridge section, you notice a change: more occurrences of two chords per bar. In this song, that speeding up of the harmonic rhythm has the effect of gently intensifying the musical energy, and it really works.

In fact, most songs do this sort of thing: having a basic pattern of one chord or two chords per bar, but then times when a chord might last longer, and other times when chords will suddenly change at a quicker rate.

There are no rules about this. There’s nothing to say that if you start your song with a harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar, you must follow certain rules for changing that.

But here’s a good rule of thumb: Whatever you choose as your basic harmonic rhythm for your song, allow yourself moments where you might double that rhythm (from one chord per bar, let’s say, to two chords per bar), and moments where you might halve that rhythm (from one chord per bar to one chord for every two bars.)

Your instincts might tell you to speed up harmonic rhythm in a chorus, since that will intensify the musical energy, but that’s not always the case. In John Lennon’s “Woman”, for example, he changes chords in the verses every two beats. When the chorus happens he switches to one chord per bar, and the effect of the slower harmonic rhythm is to amplify the emotional content of the lyric.

All this is to say that it’s something worth experimenting with, and giving more than casual thought to. dig back into your own personal catalogue of songs and see if you notice this kind of consistency in the harmonic rhythms that you (likely subconsciously) chose for your songs. There’s no right or wrong, but when you give it some thought, it can be one more way to subtly change the energy of your music.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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