Meter is the underlying force that gives life and motion to everything we do as musicians. Yet, for some reason, it’s rarely mentioned, let alone studied. Learn the most natural thing to happen at each beat, 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!
THERE ARE FIVE BASIC TERMS FOR EXPLORING RHYTHM AND METER.
Over the years, I’ve had some frustrating conversations about rhythm. The confusion comes not so much because other musicians disagree, but because they have a different understanding of some term they think is perfectly clear. To prevent that from happening here, I’ve reworked five definitions from The Complete Musician by Steven Laitz as a starting point. Pulses.
Equally spaced clicks or taps (real or imagined) are called pulses. Pulses are “undifferentiated” because they have the same quality, loudness, and length.  Beats.
Pulses transform into beats when some feel “stronger” than others. In this next example, you’ll hear the pulses from the previous example turn into beats as some become louder than others.  Tempo.
The tempo is the speed of the beat; that is, how fast or how slowly you nod or tap when you listen to music. The example you hear varies the tempo.  Meter.
Meter refers to the grouping of both strong and weak beats into recurring patterns. Our discussion today won’t focus on metric patterns, though that certainly makes a good study. Instead, we’ll focus on the psychological and physical sensations that meter creates.
Many people associate the words “down” and “up” with “strong” and “weak” beats. That’s because the words down and up describe our mental impression of what happens in meter. A basic 4/4 beat on a drumset illustrates this perfectly.
And the words up and down also fit with our kinetic impression of what happens in musical meter. Strong beats FEEL more “grounded” than weaker “up” beats. Or from another perspective, upbeats feel up in the air, as if they need to land. What goes up must come down. The metric motion of instability (up) moving to stability (down) is what gives music its forward-moving momentum. And composers continue to harness metric energy in new and glorious ways. Rhythm.
Equally spaced clicks or taps (real or imagined) are called pulses. Pulses are “undifferentiated” because they have the same quality, loudness, and length.
There are two meanings of the term rhythm, one general, one specific. Generally, it can refer to everything having to do with musical motion, counting, beats, pulses, tempo, and meter. You are presently reading a blog about rhythm.
More specifically, rhythm refers to “rhythmic patterns,” which result by combining longer and shorter note durations (plus and silences, if any). Below, you’ll see the rhythmic pattern of the basic beat you just heard. Half-way through, the pattern becomes slightly more complicated.
EVERY MELODY HAS A RHYTHM.
I suppose you could describe a melody as a series of pitches, but that’s not technically correct. The difference between a note and a pitch is that notes have a specified length. In this next example, I’ve taken an identical series of pitches and assigned different note patterns to create two different rhythms.“one series of notes; two rhythmic patterns,”
Clearly, the two rhythmic patterns sound and feel quite different. Yet it’s not the patterns themselves that create the contrast. Their dissimilarity is the result of “metric placement.” Metric placement refers to the ways that notes align with strong and weak beats, as well as afterbeats and pickups.
In melody A, we hear a short pickup note leading to a note on every beat. In melody B, not a single note lands on a beat. That’s what gives it its edgy feel.
Let’s compare versions A and B once more. This time, I’ll add another version (C) between the two. Version C has the same rhythmic pattern as version B. Each melody alternates eighth notes with eighth rests. But in version C, the notes fall on beats (with rests off the beat). In version B, the notes are on afterbeats (with the rests on the beat).
As a result, something really cool happens. Versions B and C have the same rhythmic pattern, but don’t sound/feel much like each other. Versions A and C have different rhythmic patterns, but sound and feel very much the same.“Changing the metric placement of a rhythmic pattern,”
The conclusion? Changing the metric placement of a rhythmic pattern will change the way it sounds and feels.
LANGUAGE HAS RHYTHM, TOO.
Spoken language works a bit like musical rhythm. Some SYL-lables feel STRONG while OTH-ers feel WEAK. Whenever a speaker wants to emphasize her point, she’ll add stress to a word. She will also likely alter her pitch.
It’s no exaggeration to say that human culture could not exist without melody and rhythm. How would we understand each other without the music in our voices?
We rely on our instinctual reading of stress and pitch in human speech to make sense of what others say. And this ability is EXACTLY what makes music matter so deeply to us. Music takes these most fundamental human impulses of expression and transmutes them into a realm where we are free to reshape them in ways not possible in everyday speech.
Example #1. In ordinary conversation, the average human speaking voice has a pitch range of a major 3rd. Even the “One-Note Samba” has a broader range! And the “Star-Spangled Banner” spans an octave and a major 3rd!
Example #2. It takes about 1.6 seconds to say “I will always love you.” But Whitney Houston takes 9.6 seconds to sing the same five words.
Conclusion? Although both speech and song rely on pitch and rhythm to clarify and intensify meaning, speech and song exist in different realms.
Relevance? The realm of music, with its built-in propensity for exaggeration, helps us grapple with issues that are too daunting or too beautiful to approach head-on.
EVERY SENTENCE HAS A “MOST NATURAL” RHYTHM.
Many songwriters write lyrics first, then add music. As they pen their initial draft, they likely have some sense of how they’ll sing certain choice phrases. Still, most songwriters will explore the “most natural” (“speechlike”) rhythm for most lyrics before setting them to a melody.
If you were to speak the lyrics for Adele’s song “Someone Like You,” you’d likely accent the syllables that I’ve highlighted here.
I HEARD that you’re SET-tled DOWN, that you FOUND a GIRL and you’re MAR-ried NOW.
The syllables that Adele stresses in her performance match the ones highlighted above. Though if she set them to music in a predictable way – pairing strong syllables with strong beats – her song would sound like this.“Someone Like You,” with de-composed rhythm
This version makes the clear meaning of the words far too obvious. “Hey, I heard you got married. Cool! Hope you’re happy.” Enough said. Time for the chorus.
But the point of this song – its meaning – is not to report what transpired. Adelle is still working through her feelings. Her heart remains unsettled, and an agitated heart rehashes and rehearses every painful detail. But not through logical argument. A troubled heart stammers and sputters. And at the same time, she needs to establish independence, so she has to make sure not to sound vulnerable.
I should point out that none of this subtext is in the lyrics. Adele conveys meaning through the metric alignment of the melody. Even if you don’t buy into my interpretation, we can at least agree that there is more here than the overt meaning of the lyrics, can’t we? With this in mind, listen to the actual song.“Someone Like You,” in its original rhythm
MELODIC NOTES TAKE ON THE CHARACTERISTIC WEIGHT AND LIFT OF THE BEATS THEY INHABIT.
The first note of the song comes in “too early” – before the 4-bar introduction finishes. The upbeat placement of the words “I heard” makes them feel interruptive and a bit awkward – the way we feel when we don’t quite know to bring up a sensitive issue. We desperately want to say our piece with poise, but instead, we blurt. That’s what I hear happening here, though Adele quickly recovers and immediately finds her stride.
And what an odd stride it is! Notice that none of the naturally-stressed syllables lines up with a stressed beat. In fact, not a single melodic note falls on beats 1 or 3! No wonder the music feels unsettled: everything is metrically up in the air. By accenting the weak beats in bars 2-4, Adele creates a slow-motion backbeat. She says what she says at her own deliberate pace.
And listen to how she shakes her finger at this man. The words, “that you’re,” “that you,” “and you’re,” come on beat 4 of measures 1-3. Adele turns each two-word phrase into an accusation by setting each pair of words to a disruptive, in-your-face rhythmic figure known as “The Scotch Snap.” Usually, words like “that you’re,” “that you,” and “and you’re” serve to connect ideas. And that’s what they do when we read the lyrics. But when Adele sings, none of the “connective” words “connect.” Each bar ends with an upbeat to nothing – an exaggerated upbeat to nothing. In this way, she fills every pause with anticipation.
Then suddenly, everything changes.“Someone Like You,” at the point the rhythm breaks
The second phrase resumes the slow, backbeat stride of the first. But when we get to the words “that your dreams come true,” the upbeat on beat 4 is NOT interrupted! Instead, the upbeat ushers in THREE QUARTER NOTES! The contrast in motion (forward momentum) is as astounding as it inspiring. Especially because the first quarter note – the one on the downbeat – is the highest in the song so far! And the word at that moment? “Dreams.”
Do you find it ironic that the most metrically grounded music enters at the word “dreams?” Aren’t dreams elusive? Don’t dreams dwell in the sphere of feelings and imagination? What does Adele imply by quickening and certifying the pace with on-the-beat motion at this point?
In my view, She wholeheartedly affirms everything that our culture believes – that our dreams for love and happiness are the most treasured and essential aspects of who we are.
For me, this opening passage of “Someone Like You” is remarkable in all of songwriting. We hear Adele, a larger-than-life superstar being vulnerable despite her calculated efforts not to. She’s overcome by love, a love that transcends her deep pain. She genuinely wishes the best for her former partner. Her song is a combination of denying her true feelings and letting them spill. We don’t get any sense of this from the lyrics, which are hardly illuminating. And this is why we need melody. The way Adele marries her unremarkable words to the ups and downs of musical meter speaks to each one of us about our own disappointments and dreams.
POINTS FOR REVIEW
- There are five basic terms for exploring rhythm and meter: pulse, beats, meter, tempo and rhythm. All five aspects come into play in melody.
- When we say that “Every melody has a rhythm,” we acknowledge that a melody is a series of notes (which have specific lengths), not pitches (which don’t).
- It is possible to take one series of notes and, by changing the rhythm, make different melodies.
- When we say that language has rhythm, we’re particularly interested in noting differences between stressed and unstressed syllables.
- Melodic notes take on the characteristic weight and lift of the beats they inhabit.