Principle #2 in the series, “The 3 Core Principles of Melody.”
Musical meter is deeply intuitive. And it’s so closely tied to our physical bodies that even babies and many animals respond to it. Doesn’t it make sense that meter would be a key to understanding music?
But by and large, it is RARE to find anyone who talks about meter. To get excited about rhythm means someone is fascinated by the fancy patterns we invent “on top” of the meter, not the underlying forces that give life and motion to everything we do as musicians.
I believe that this is a grave oversight.
Music depends heavily on momentum and gravity. Learn the most natural thing to happen at each phase, and you’ll begin to recognize when other composers do something unusual, something special. You’ll know WHAT they do, and THE MUSICAL EFFECT IT CREATES. And because you know precisely WHERE they do it, you’ll be able to use those same effects in your own music!
Look at the following illustration for about 15 seconds. Don’t overthink it. Just let the images affect you.
Granted, it’s not a perfect matchup. If the jumper’s action mirrored the music written below him, we’d see him land, jump again, and then pitch forward a bit as he came to his feet. In a way that doesn’t matter. The photo captures much of the kinetic sensations intrinsic within metric motion?
The note patterns beneath the long jumper show something interesting about melodic figures. Notice that the notes are all the same value. By moving leaps and steps to different parts of the beat, musicians can create different rhythms: groups of notes that move and flow differently – in contrast to other groups of notes.
We encountered this at the end of the previous blog post. I pointed out that Bach set up a strict pattern with the direction of 3-note scales starting in bar 2. But I left out a bit of information. Every upward 3-note scale jumps down to the next beat, which produces an accent on beats 2 and 4. Every downward 3-note scale connects smoothly to the next beat, which produces no accent. This gives the music a “backbeat.” That’s right. Bach was swinging hundreds of years before it was cool to be cool (at least for white folks). I point this out because it’s one of thousands of effects you can create once you learn to work with melodic figures. (I’ll cover more of them future blogs. And they are a main topic in my book, Figuring Out Melody.)
J.S. Bach: “Prelude #5” from WTC I
But there’s an important lesson here. Rhythm depends on far more than note values and accents.
Do you rely exclusively on note values and accents to create interesting rhythms? Imagine what could happen when you start to use melodic rhythm. You can take your music to a whole new level! (Especially because melodic rhythm can enliven bass lines and accompaniments, as well.)
Learning What Counts
Right now I want to explore an aspect of aligning melodic figures with the meter that’s only possible when we use variable rhythm. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the rhythm primer every kid uses during their first few months of music lessons.
This primer is actually quite brilliant. Aligning the note values in this way demonstrates something essential about meter. The strongest beats are the ones that have the most notes that begin at that moment. In other words, beats 1 and 3 feel more “heavy” or “stable” than beats 2 and 4, which feel “unstable.” Thus, we sense an underlying push and pull between stronger and weaker beats as we make or listen to music. In this way, musical meter relies on something akin to gravity.
What does this have to do with melody? Melodic notes take on the characteristic weight and lift of the beats they inhabit. Words have “gravity” as well. Some SYL-lables have more WEIGHT than OTH-ers. We call this “stress” or “accentuation.” Here’s what I hear as the most natural reading of accentuation in Adelle’s lyrics.
I HEARD that you’re SET-tled DOWN, that you FOUND a GIRL
and you’re MAR-ried NOW.
Before we explore what Adelle does with these lyrics, let’s hear how it feels when we pair the strong syllables in the lyrics with strong beats in the melodic figures (marked with red arrows) and weak syllables with weak beats (blue arrows).
Adelle: “Someone Like You” (with squared-off rhythm)
In some songs, this “very sensible pairing” produces great results. (This is exactly what the examples in the previous post do.) So why not here?
Levels of Meaning
The meaning of Adelle’s words is perfectly clear. If that’s all that Adelle wanted to communicate then the sensible pairing would suffice. For that matter, she could have just sung, “Hey, I heard you got married.” Enough said. Time for the chorus.
But the point of this song is not to report what transpired. Adelle is still working through her feelings. Her heart is unsettled. And an unsettled heart rehearses every painful detail. But not through logical argument. A troubled heart blurts out broken phrases in faltering rhythm.
Why does this music feel so disquieting?
For starters, Adelle comes in “too early” – before the 4-bar introduction finishes. And not one of the naturally-stressed syllables lines up with a stressed beat. In fact, not a single melodic note falls on a downbeat. This is intensified by what happens on beat 4 of the first three bars. Adelle emphasizes the least important words: “that you’re” “that you” “and you’re.”
Typically, these are connective words. But here, Adele gives each pair a disruptive rhythm: BA-DOM! (This rhythm—sixteenth note, dotted eighth—is known as the “Scotch snap.” This one is unusual for two reasons. First, that it appears in a slow song. Second, that we don’t hear several repetitions in close succession. For more, check out “The Scotch Snap in Hip Hop.”) And to make the upbeats even more disruptive, none of the “connective” words “connect.” Each bar ends with an upbeat to nothing – an exaggerated upbeat to nothing.
The “illogical” rhythm here actually makes perfect sense – emotional sense. When was the last time you cried; and I mean really sobbed? It’s nigh impossible to talk when our lungs are in spasm. We speak in short bursts. All the wrong words get amplified way out of proportion. I’m not saying that Adelle sounds like she’s crying when she sings this verse. She doesn’t. But by using the rhythm of sobbing, the song conveys far more than its simple lyrics.
Then suddenly, everything changes.
This time the upbeat isn’t interrupted! Immediately, we get THREE QUARTER NOTES! And the first quarter note – the highest notes so far – falls on a downbeat! It’s as if Adelle has suddenly found her moorings. Her whole world may have crumbled, but she still believes in dreams.
Once again, I wrote a blog centered around only one melodic figure. But of course, the figure isn’t the focus, rhythm is. Or more specifically, how aligning the notes of a figure on different parts of the meter affects rhythm.
Here’s your challenge. Use some of what you learned from listening to Adelle’s first verse as you set a few lyrics. Which lyrics? Find something from the back of a bag of Fritos. Maybe the ingredients: “corn, corn oil, and salt.” Maybe part of the ad copy: “Maybe When hunger strikes, a lightweight snack just isn’t going to cut it.” If neither of these sound fun, scour the photo further.
Use the same figure as last time. Up to you whether to repeat the notes (with varied rhythm) or vary the notes in one of the ways shown in the previous blog post. Again, the only rule is that you keep revising until you come up with something you really like. And when you’re done, treat yourself to a lightweight snack, unless that just isn’t going to cut it.